There's been a lot of monkey business in the world of COVID-19 vaccine research this week -- literally.
Scientists from San Diego to Boston to Oxford, England, have released results from studies in which monkeys given experimental COVID-19 vaccines were then deliberately infected with the novel coronavirus. And while the specific vaccine formulations differed, all induced immune responses that stalled the growth of the virus.
The recent results encompass vaccines in development by Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and local biotech Inovio Pharmaceuticals.
The findings are no guarantee that any of these vaccines will protect people against COVID-19. Monkeys, or, as scientists call them, nonhuman primates, are, well, not human. It will take a clinical trial to know whether a vaccine is safe and prevents disease, such as Moderna's 30,000-person trial, which launched nationwide Monday.
But the findings are nonetheless encouraging, says Dennis Burton, a vaccine expert at Scripps Research Institute.
"The series of reports are all pointing in the same direction," Burton said. "That's good. Inducing the right responses suggests that you're on the right track."
WHY DO THESE STUDIES?
Monkeys infected with the novel coronavirus don't develop the full-blown COVID-19 respiratory symptoms that some people do, but the virus can still replicate in their lungs. That makes monkeys a useful testing ground for whether a vaccine slows viral growth, which researchers believe would make it harder to spread the virus.
"As far as we know, anyone who has the virus can transmit it," wrote Dr. David Pride, who oversees UC San Diego's coronavirus testing. "We assume that those who are shedding higher levels of the virus are much more infectious than those who are shedding low levels."
The setup for these studies is simple: administer a vaccine, then infect with a controlled amount of virus. Researchers can then test an animal's blood for signs of an immune response and measure the amount of virus in its airways.