- Mark Coughlan, Prime Time
"If there was ever a good time for this to happen, it's kind of now," Professor Luke O'Neill from Trinity College Dublin tells me. In the last 15 years, what science understands about vaccines and viruses has developed hugely.
Now, that knowledge is being put to the test, to put it mildly.
Across the world, medical scientists are working hour-by-hour to try to us get beyond our new day-to-day existence. The pandemic has sparked a global scientific response, which is moving at incredible pace. "It's amazing," says Dr Fiachra Humphries, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "Chinese researchers published the genome sequence, two days after that a company called Moderna had a candidate vaccine designed."
That pace has been going now for are little more than 100 days. That's how long it's been since the WHO was first notified about the existence of an emerging virus by China. The developments in the meantime have been staggering, production processes across the world have struggled to keep pace. "What's been striking is the speed at which new evidence is emerging," says Dr Cliodhna Ni Bhuachalla, a clinical microbiologist and public health physician in Cork, "and also the speed at which this evidence this is being used to inform practice and policies."
Scientists are doing things that would be otherwise unthinkable. Hospital and bio-pharma scientists came together in Cork to create the key ingredient to allow more tests to be conducted, because there wasn't enough of it. It's like carpenters making their own tools.
In the city's Mercy Hospital, microbiologists 'validated' - think 'installed and stress-tested' - the testing process for Covid-19 in 72 hours. "Something we've never done before," says Dr Deirdre O'Brien, a consultant microbiologist. Something they hope to never have to do again, I imagine, too.
Beyond the testing, the race is one to find a solution. In the short term that means a drug treatment, to lessen the severity of the disease on people who do get infected. In the longer term, that means a vaccine, to prevent the disease making people sick in the first place.
Tens of drugs are being tested. As Dr Siobhan McClean, Head of Biochemistry in UCD explained, they're looking at the two main aspects of Covid-19: viral replication and lung damage. But the big question for science is the vaccine.
There's many vaccines being worked on across the world, some further down the line than others. Some are conventional types of vaccines in which virus proteins are 'deactivated' before being injected in tiny amounts, causing our body to make anti-bodies, to help it look out for the real thing when it hits, but others are types of vaccines that were impossible until recently.
Several companies are using technology to develop RNA vaccines to fight the virus. The technology to do it only really became viable in the last ten years, no-time in VaccineLand. It involves using Messenger RNA, explaining that fully would take a lot more space than I have available here. A highly simplified attempt: You may have heard DNA called our 'cell blueprint'. If DNA is the blueprint, Messenger RNA is the construction manager. When a coronavirus infects our cells, it puts its own RNA into our cells - it takes over the construction process. Our bodies realise stuff is not being built according to the blueprint and sends stuff to try and get the construction process back on track. After we recover, our bodies keep a note of what the rogue construction manager attempted to build.
These new vaccines contain these notes. With conventional vaccines, you're parading the rogue around, bringing him to meet people face-to-face. The big advantage with RNA vaccines - like notes - is you can distribute copies. They can be made much quicker and distributed far easier.
The problem is, RNA vaccines are so new none been approved yet by the major regulatory bodies which oversee these things. Many see them as a key weapon in fighting infectious diseases in the future, the question is: is that the future now?