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COVID-19 updates: Vaccine development, obesity worries, and plasma therapy

August 18, 2020

Researcher holding a human biofluid sample

There’s a lot of news on COVID-19 (as always). First, some very good news: Vaccine development is progressing at a surprisingly brisk pace, with researchers arriving at phase 3 trials in six months, instead of years, raising the possibility of an approved vaccine faster than ever.

“Vaccines typically take years, if not decades, to reach people,” STAT reported last week. “The record now is four years for the mumps vaccine.”

What has gone right so far?

According to STAT, a rapid mobilization to the outbreak, instant publication of the virus’s genetic sequence, a foe in the familiar form of a coronavirus (the same virus type behind SARS and MERS), new vaccine approaches (e.g., mRNA and DNA), and federal funding to reduce pharma company risk.

Yet there’s a big obstacle for a COVID-19 vaccine

The good news is tempered by the fact that a successful vaccine, whenever it arrives, might not work so well for 2 in 5 Americans – those considered obese. As CNN detailed, vaccines for the flu, tetanus and rabies can be less effective in the obese, and there’s concern it will be the same story for COVID-19.

Successful vaccination triggers an inflammation response. Obese people may have chronic, mild inflammation, which may blunt their response to a vaccine.

“Will we have a COVID vaccine next year tailored to the obese? No way,” Raz Shaikh, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told CNN. “Will [a standard vaccine] still work in the obese? Our prediction is no.”

The CDC lists obesity (BMI of 30 or higher) as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness, and that’s about 42% of the U.S. population.

Positive signs for convalescent plasma therapy

Meanwhile, convalescent plasma treatment – the transfusion of antibody-rich plasma from recently infected patients to new COVID-19 patients – is showing early signs of progress in two preliminary analyses. The Wall Street Journal reported preliminary data on 3,000 patients, comparing patients who’d received high levels of antibodies within three days of diagnosis with those who’d received low doses later. The data showed 36% lower mortality at 30 days after transfusion in the early/high-dose group compared with the later/lower-dose group.

In a separate review of 12 trials involving a total of more than 800 participants, the mortality rate among those given plasma was 13% compared with 25% among those receiving standard treatments. Neither analysis has been peer reviewed, and clinicians hope random clinical trials can shed more light on convalescent plasma’s efficacy and the parameters within which it’s most effective.

As previously announced, we’re assisting in the investigation of convalescent plasma, providing samples to the CDC to help researchers understand the antibody response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus following an infection, and how these antibodies change over time.

Best wishes to all of the researchers working on vaccines, treatments and cures.

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