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The race for coronavirus vaccines: a graphical guide

Eight ways in which scientists hope to provide immunity to SARS-CoV-2 .

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More than 90 vaccines are being developed against SARS-CoV-2 by research teams in companies and universities across the world. Researchers are trialling different technologies, some of which haven’t been used in a licensed vaccine before. At least six groups have already begun injecting formulations into volunteers in safety trials; others have started testing in animals. Nature’s graphical guide explains each vaccine design.

A graphic that shows how the body develops immunity to coronavirus.

Graphics: Nik Spencer/Nature

SARS-CoV-2 vaccines: a variety of approaches

All vaccines aim to expose the body to an antigen that won’t cause disease, but will provoke an immune response that can block or kill the virus if a person becomes infected. There are at least eight types being tried against the coronavirus, and they rely on different viruses or viral parts.

A graph that shows the number of coronavirus vaccines in development.

Sources: Nature analysis based on: WHO COVID-19 Vaccine Landscape/Milken Institute COVID-19 Treatment and Vaccine Tracker/T. Thanh Le et al. Nature Rev. Drug. Disc. (2020)/F. Amanat & F. Krammer Immunity 52, 583–589 (2020)/W. Shang et al. npj Vaccines 5, 18 (2020).

Virus vaccines

At least seven teams are developing vaccines using the virus itself, in a weakened or inactivated form. Many existing vaccines are made in this way, such as those against measles and polio, but they require extensive safety testing. Sinovac Biotech in Beijing has started to test an inactivated version of SARS-CoV-2 in humans.

A graphic that shows how weakened or inactivated coronavirus can be used in a vaccine.

Viral-vector vaccines

Around 25 groups say they are working on viral-vector vaccines. A virus such as measles or adenovirus is genetically engineered so that it can produce coronavirus proteins in the body. These viruses are weakened so they cannot cause disease. There are two types: those that can still replicate within cells and those that cannot because key genes have been disabled.

A graphic that shows how viral vectors containing coronavirus genes can be used in a vaccine.

Nucleic-acid vaccines

At least 20 teams are aiming to use genetic instructions (in the form of DNA or RNA) for a coronavirus protein that prompts an immune response. The nucleic acid is inserted into human cells, which then churn out copies of the virus protein; most of these vaccines encode the virus’s spike protein.

A graphic that shows how coronavirus genetic material can be used in a vaccine.

Protein-based vaccines

Many researchers want to inject coronavirus proteins directly into the body. Fragments of proteins or protein shells that mimic the coronavirus’s outer coat can also be used.

A graphic that shows how coronavirus proteins can be used in a vaccine.

Industry trials

More than 70% of the groups leading vaccine research efforts are from industrial or private firms. Clinical trials start with small safety studies in animals and people, followed by much larger trials to determine whether a vaccine generates an immune response. Researchers are accelerating these steps and hope to have a vaccine ready in 18 months.

A graph that shows the types of developers from different regions of the world that are developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Source: Fig. 2 in T. Thanh Le et al. Nature Rev. Drug. Disc. (2020).

Nature 580, 576-577 (2020)

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