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Speeding the COVID-19 Drug Development Process

Scientists around the world sprang into action in early 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Early work focused on trying to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ mechanism of action and the latest work has been focused on developing drug treatments to neutralize it. And they’ve made significant progress in just a short period of time. In fact, multiple clinical trials for drugs that will either prevent or neutralize SARS-CoV2 are already in progress1.


How are researchers able to do this so quickly, you might ask? One approach is to incorporate the latest technology like the Beacon® system into their workflow. For example, scientists at the University of Queensland, in collaboration with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in Oslo, have identified a molecular clamp that will essentially lock the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in one configuration to promote antibody production2. They are expressing the clamp in mammalian cells and using the Beacon® instrument to speed up the screening process at a single-cell level. Trent Munro, a biotechnologist involved in the project, estimates that they can now “do things that would have taken weeks before in just days.” Because the Beacon system measures protein expression as well as functionality, like protein binding, at the same time scientists are also saving time downstream since non-functional hits aren’t progressing further down the development process.



Another approach is to use non-traditional drug development methods to accelerate discovery and production timelines. Traditional vaccine development requires researchers to design an inactive form of the virus that will stimulate the production of virus-specific antibodies when it is injected into a patient. They then need to grow up and purify enough of this inactive material to create enough for everyone who needs the vaccine, which is a laborious process that can take months or years3. Instead, some researchers are now developing DNA and mRNA vaccines that can be designed using computer modeling, streamlining the design phase. DNA and mRNA vaccines utilize a patient’s cellular machinery to express the inactive viral protein, bypassing the lengthy time it takes to manufacture proteins as well.

The hope is that these approaches will make it possible to have a vaccine in the clinic for emergency use in 2021 and for approval and widespread use far faster than the 6-10 years or longer it can often take3.


  1. COVID-19 Vaccine Frontrunners. 2020. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/covid-19-vaccine-frontrunners-67382
  2. To tackle the new coronavirus, scientists are accelerating the vaccine process. 2020. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/new-coronavirus-vaccine-development-process-accelerating
  3. How long with it take to develop a coronavirus vaccine? 2020. https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/vaccine-development-testing-and-regulation