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Pigs used to test potential vaccines to coronavirus

In an attempt to control Covid-19, the Pirbright Institute in the United Kingdom will try out new vaccines on pigs.

That was made known in a press release by the institute. As the pig immune system shares significant similarities to that of humans, a good response to a certain vaccine in pigs will help to predict the success of vaccines for human use. Researchers will also test the safety of the new vaccines and monitor whether any adverse effects are observed in the pigs, the news article said.

UK approach to find Covid-19 vaccines

The initiative is part of a wider UK approach to find solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Pirbright scientists will be working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford and Public Health England.

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange) isolated from a patient in the US, emerging from the surface of cells (brown) cultured in the lab. Illustration: NIAID-RML
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange) isolated from a patient in the US, emerging from the surface of cells (brown) cultured in the lab. Illustration: NIAID-RML

The vaccines will be tested for their ability to induce protective antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of Covid-19. They will include the chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector (ChAdOx1) which is soon to enter human phase I clinical trials and has been used to create vaccines for diseases like Ebola, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and flu.

Measuring antibodies after vaccination in pigs

The vaccine candidates are developed at Oxford University, the news article explained, and will contain the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2, the protein against which protective antibodies are generated in infected patients. Pirbright scientists will subsequently measure the level of antibodies produced after vaccination of pigs and assess whether the antibodies can block SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells, thereby preventing infection.

This work will inform the development of vaccines that are both effective and safe for humans. If successful, the next step would be to begin human trials, although a useable vaccine is still many months away.

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Expertise in animal immunology

The Pirbright Institute has the expertise in animal immunology and the modern virology facilities required to undertake this type of work. Pigs have previously been used as a large animal model in research on influenza viruses because pigs have a similar respiratory system to humans, are naturally infected by influenza viruses and produce antibodies with similar characteristics as humans.

Previously Pirbright has not carried out research on human coronaviruses.