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A Team Effort on a Global Scale: Finding a Vaccine for COVID-19 with Duke-NUS and Arcturus


Mon, 05/25/2020 - 12:00


Scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. Not only were Duke-NUS researchers among the first in the world to successfully isolate and cultivate the virus, they were also the first in the world to use antibody serological tests to aid contact tracing efforts in February 2020 when they helped to establish links between COVID-19 clusters at Life Church and Missions Singapore and at Grace Assembly of God.²

Now, scientists at Duke-NUS are taking on a bigger challenge. On 4 March 2020, Duke-NUS Medical School officially announced that it was partnering Arcturus Therapeutics to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. This venture represents Singapore’s main effort from the local scientific community to find a vaccine, alongside dozens of teams around the world on the same quest.³

Dr Ooi Eng Eong, Deputy Director of the Emerging Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, explained that this partnership with Arcturus Therapeutics allows local scientists to leverage the latter’s STARR Technology™. To understand the novelty of this technology, a basic introduction to how vaccines work is first needed.

“The simplest form of a vaccine is to introduce the dead virus into the human body to educate the cells about this virus. Think of it as if you are introducing a still image of the virus to cells in the body to train them to recognise the live virus in the future.”

“Another form of vaccination is to introduce a weakened, not dead, form of the virus into the human body. So, instead of a still image, you’re introducing a ‘movie trailer’ to cells in the body so that they can recognise this virus in the future,” Dr Ooi explained.

In recent years, however, vaccinology has advanced beyond these standard approaches. Among the newer approaches is the mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccine. “This only introduces the specific part of the virus that is important to human cells to educate the immune system—for instance, the spiked protein of COVID-19 which acts as a key to unlock cells.”

“But, in the traditional mRNA approach, the body does not replicate the RNA itself, like a real virus would. The patented STARR Technology™ introduces the RNA replication process into the human body, providing a more thorough ‘simulation’ training for cells to learn about this new virus.”

This mRNA technology is relatively new in scientific terms. As such, no mRNA vaccine has successfully completed the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. (For context, FDA approval of new drugs takes an average of 12 years.) Nevertheless, within the scientific community, mRNA vaccines are well-regarded for their safety as well as the speed with which they can be developed and scaled up. No wonder, then, that among the most closely watched vaccine development efforts internationally include those pursuing mRNA vaccines. For instance, the Boston-based biotechnology company, Moderna, is working on an mRNA vaccine which is regarded within the scientific community as one of the more promising COVID-19 vaccine ventures.4

Dr Ooi also offered a helpful paradigm to understand this global quest for a vaccine. Although major newspapers around the world have described the pursuit of a viable vaccine against COVID-19 as a “competition”, or even as a “global arms race”, Dr Ooi emphasised that the diversity of efforts and scientific approaches is crucial and beneficial to humanity’s overall fight against the virus.5 This is because a vaccine can fail at so many different points during its long development process—what may work in the scientific laboratory may fail at a manufacturing scale, or it may fail safety standards.

“COVID-19 is a very new virus and we simply don’t know enough about it. As such, the more teams there are working on this, the more diverse approaches to scoring a goal there will be, and the better our chances will be at winning this battle,” Dr Ooi explained.

Duke-NUS and Arcturus Therapeutics are currently developing pre-clinical trials on their vaccine using animals, and they expect to start clinical trials using humans in August.6 As part of the deal brokered by the Economic Development Board (EDB), Singapore would own the rights to manufacture the vaccine locally, while Arcturus Therapeutics would own the rights to sell it internationally should this vaccine be successfully developed.

In our Fighting COVID-19 with Deep Tech Insights Paper, we share three Singapore-based organisations and their roles in building technologies in the fight against COVID-19. Download the paper to read about the other two organisations and their work.

2 CNA, “Duke-NUS used COVID-19 antibody tests to establish link between church clusters in a world-first”, 25 Feb 2020 [https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/covid19-coronavirus-duke-nus-antibody-tests-12469184]

3 For a comprehensive list of di_erent international teams working towards a vaccine, see London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “COVID-19 vaccine development pipeline” [https://vac-lshtm.shinyapps.io/ncov_vaccine_landscape/]

4 Yale News, “Hope for a COVID-19 vaccine — a conversation with David Spiegel”, 9 April 2020 [https://news.yale.edu/2020/04/09/hope-covid-19-vaccine-conversation-david-spiegel]

5 The New York Times, “Search for Coronavirus Vaccine Becomes a Global Competition”, 19 March 2020 [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/us/politics/coronavirus-vaccine-competition.html]

6 The Straits Times, “Singapore's vaccine could be ready for clinical trials by August”, 16 April 2020 [https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/singapores-vaccine-could-be-ready-for-clinical-trials-by-august]


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