Within hours of the public release of the viral genome sequence for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, scientists at the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and their collaborators engineered a key protein to enable its study as a vaccine candidate and for research applications.
In the months that followed, the NIAID, through its Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Office (TTIPO), facilitated rapid distribution of the key protein to the global research community, enabling critical research and the global scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 particles are spherical and have proteins called spikes protruding from their surface. These spikes latch onto human cells, then allow the virus membrane to fuse with the human cell membrane. The viral genes can then enter the host cell to be copied, producing more viruses.
Based on earlier work with SARS-CoV-1 and other coronaviruses, researchers at the VRC and collaborators quickly engineered a version of SARS-CoV-2 with spike proteins stabilized in their prefusion conformation, which makes them more easily produced and a more useful target for vaccine development than the native spike protein.
Despite similarities between the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2, three different antibodies for the SARS-CoV-1 spike protein did not bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in tests. This early finding suggested that potential vaccines and antibody-based treatments would need to be specific to SARS-CoV-2. It also demonstrated the importance of rapid sharing of SARS-CoV-2 prefusion stabilized spike proteins, and the plasmid molecules that encode them, with researchers working to develop treatments and vaccines.
Despite similarities between the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2, three different antibodies for the SARS-CoV-1 spike protein did not bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in tests.
As of Oct. 8, 2020, NIAID had negotiated 83 Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs) with 70 academic organizations, nonprofits, government agencies and other entities to provide SARS-CoV-2 prefusion stabilized spike proteins or plasmids for their research projects. About 60% of the MTAs were signed within three days, and more than 70% were completed within one week; nearly 80% were completed within two weeks.
To further expedite sharing for research use worldwide, NIAID designated its Biodefense and Emerging Infections Research Resources Repository (BEI Resources) to produce and distribute the spike materials. Since June 2020, BEI Resources has fulfilled 55 requests for SARS-CoV-2 spike plasmids. In September, the TTIPO also signed an agreement with the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), a large repository in the United Kingdom, to produce and distribute the materials.
Additionally, 21 license agreements were executed with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies for technologies related to SARS-CoV-2 prefusion stabilized spike proteins. Many of the licenses were signed within two weeks and the vast majority within one month. Most licensees planned to use the technology to support vaccine development.
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