14 May 2021

Virtual Shield

Will the "sanitary shield" save you from the new coronavirus? 

Microbiologist Severinov on the timing of the development of test systems and vaccines


Russia has begun to create a powerful "sanitary shield". This was announced on May 12 by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. During his speech in the State Duma, he said that "now it is extremely important to draw conclusions for the future and learn the lessons of the pandemic in order to prevent this from happening in the future."

Earlier, President Vladimir Putin said that the country needs a "powerful and reliable shield", which, with the potential appearance of a new infection, will allow it to develop its own test systems in four days and create an effective vaccine in the shortest possible time. According to the portal "Pharmaceutical Bulletin", it is planned to allocate 4 months to create a vaccine.

Are the planned deadlines realistic? Is it possible to learn how to prevent the global spread of new infections? And what can the "sanitary shield" of Russia look like?

We asked these questions to microbiologist Konstantin Severinov, Doctor of Biological Sciences, professor at Skoltech and Rutgers University (USA).

If we encounter any new infection tomorrow, is it possible to develop a test system in 4 days? And in what shortest possible time can a vaccine be created?

If we are talking about new infections, the nature of which is unknown, then develop proven test systems or vaccines within the specified time frame (4 days for test systems and 4 months for vaccines) practically impossible. Because in order to develop a test system or a vaccine, you first need to determine the causative agent of a new disease. This requires access to biological samples obtained from sick people, and advanced DNA sequencing technologies, with the help of which, for example, the coronavirus genome was determined. At present, sequencing machines and reagents necessary for their operation are not produced in Russia. To implement the announced deadlines, this situation will need to be changed.

If, as in the case of coronavirus, someone else identifies the pathogen and puts its genome into open access, then modern technologies allow for 4 days to make a prototype of a diagnostic test system based on a chain polymerase reaction. But the very fact of developing a prototype does not mean that the system is ready for practical use. It is necessary to determine its sensitivity and specificity. It is impossible to do this without access to real samples of patients. Then you need to register it and start production. It will take time. But, at least, it is possible to declare that there is a system in principle in 4 days and even earlier.

As for the vaccine, having, for example, an adenovirus platform, on the basis of which Sputnik V is made, it is possible to create a candidate vaccine in 4 months, again, provided that you know the genome of the new pathogen and you know its proteins that can cause an immune response. But it will not be possible to conduct clinical trials and prove the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, and then register it in 4 months. The example of Sputnik, which is now not quite successfully struggling on the market with other vaccines, in particular for the reason that instead of the standard procedure for conducting clinical trials with subsequent registration based on the results of the tests, exactly the opposite was done, shows that it is not always justified to do quickly, neglecting standard procedures.

Is it possible to learn how to predict the appearance of a new infection? For example, using artificial intelligence?

Now everyone is interested in digitalization, artificial intelligence, machine learning. People who talk about it, in particular people in high positions, often do not have a specialized education and cannot even assess what exactly they are talking about. So there is usually nothing behind these campaigns. Of course, the methods of collecting and analyzing information can and should be used in order to engage in epidemiological monitoring and control, this allows us to determine in a timely manner the very fact of the presence of an outbreak. But it is impossible to predict how this outbreak will develop, just as it was impossible to do with a coronavirus infection a year and a half ago, when no one could say what all this would result in. The pandemic once again made it clear that infectious agents do not recognize State borders, so any monitoring system should include elements of global information exchange. And this is also a problem.

What do you think is meant by "sanitary shield"?

I'm sure it's just a figure of speech. Most likely, we are talking about a standard set of epidemiological measures that we already use. We have a number of departments: Rospotrebnadzor, the FMBA, the Ministry of Health, which are responsible, together and separately, for taking a set of measures of this kind.

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