COVID-19 research has been the subject of intense global focus ever since it became obvious that the disease was spreading rapidly despite early efforts to contain it. As the devastating impact of COVID-19 became more apparent, countries have raced to coordinate the scientific efforts and resources necessary to fight the disease.
COVID-19 itself has hampered many of these efforts – shortages in personal protective gear, travel restrictions, and the fact that the illness strikes so many workers essential to our daily lives have all disrupted ongoing biomedical research. The disease has also had an impact that few people outside of the pharmaceutical industry may realize: a critical need for access to COVID-19 related samples.
COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. To study the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on the human body, scientists first needed samples from COVID-19 patients. Blood and plasma samples from recovering patients were necessary to isolate and sequence the virus so that a vaccine could be developed. COVID-19 immune cell products are critically important to helping scientists understand immunological responses to the virus. Convalescent plasma from COVID-19 patients, for example, has been shown to assist the recovery of those currently suffering from severe disease. [1, 2]
COVID-19 patients willing to donate blood provided the starting materials necessary to develop the FDA-approved vaccines currently being distributed. These donor materials are still needed for those vaccines and treatments which are still in development.
How Do COVID-19 Vaccines Work?
As of January 28 2021, there are 67 vaccines in clinical trials,  with 20 having reached the final stages of testing. 7 of these vaccines have been fast-tracked or rolled out under emergency status in different continents around the world. All COVID-19 vaccines currently in use or in testing are based on 4 different technologies:
- mRNA (e.g., the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently in use in the U.S.): introduces viral genetic material to make a harmless version of a key viral protein. The immune system is then primed to attack this protein whenever it appears.
- Virus-based (traditional): This format is being used in China. Introduces a dead or weakened form of the virus to induce an immune response.
- Viral Vectors (e.g., the AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, CanSino, and Sputnik vaccines): Delivers a modified, harmless virus via a carrier vector to “teach” the immune system to react.
- Protein-based: Generates an immune response by introducing a viral protein, for example the SARS-CoV2 spike protein.
While clinical trial results and vaccine rollouts are highly encouraging, it will likely still be many months before most people can be vaccinated. As millions wait for the vaccine, the search for alternative COVID-19 treatment options is ongoing.
Access To COVID-19 Immune Cell Products
As COVID-19 cases surge, there is an urgent need to expand access to COVID-19 related immune cell products. COVID-19 convalescent plasma, approved by the FDA last summer to treat struggling patients, is in particularly high demand . Plasma (the liquid portion of blood) from convalescing patients often contains high titers of COVID-19 specific antibodies and has been shown to help some patients fight off the disease. Demand from hospitals and research institutions is such that donor collection centers have had trouble keeping up and are actively reaching out to recovered COVID-19 patients to ask them to consider donating.
Other COVID-19 related blood products are also urgently needed. Researchers use peripheral blood mononuclear cells collected from COVID-19 patients to study the pathology of the disease and to gain a better understanding of why some patients experience mild symptoms, while others have significant illness. Cellero’s own antigen-specific T cell lines directed against the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 continue to be immensely helpful for researchers involved with vaccine development and research.
It is not just the individual COVID-19 patient that benefits from the COVID-19 patient donor material. Researchers desperate to understand the virus, its pathways, and how it works need access to cellular material from infected patients. As the virus mutates, vaccine scientists are working around the clock to redesign vaccines to target these mutations. COVID-19 research critically depends on access to COVID-19 patient donor material and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
At Cellero, we recognize the ongoing need for high-quality COVID-19 research products. During these challenging times, we continue to support COVID-19 research, as well as our clients’ custom research goals.
- Libster R., et al. Early High-Titer Plasma Therapy to Prevent Severe Covid-19 in Older Adults. NEJM. Jan 2021.
- Joyner M. J., et al. Convalescent Plasma Antibody Levels and the Risk of Death from Covid-19. NEJM. Jan 2021.
- Zimmer C. et al. Coronavirus vaccine tracker. New York Times. Jan 2021.
- Shortage of convalescent plasma as cases of COVID-19 surge. CBS News. Jan 2021.