Scientists at the University of Leeds in England have developed a new polio vaccine that is far safer to produce than current methods.
Vaccines made from “virus-like-particles” (VLPs) have been successful against hepatitis B and HPV, but have not been stable enough for polio vaccines. As a result, polio vaccines have been produced by growing, and then chemically destroying, large amounts of the virus. Though effective, the process is potentially dangerous in that the virus could escape into the environment.
But that is about to change. Researchers have now discovered mutations in VPLs that are stable enough to be used for polio vaccines, thus eliminating the dangers of creating a live virus.
Polio is 99.99% eradicated worldwide, but scientists maintain vaccination must continue even after the disease is wiped out. Vaccines produced by the new VPL method will replace the old ones once that happens.
“Continuing to vaccinate after polio has been eradicated is essential to ensure against the disease recurring, but there are significant biosafety concerns about current production methods,” David Rowlands, a Leeds University professor and co-author of the study said in a press release. “Our new method of creating the vaccine has been proven to work in lab conditions and on top of that we’ve proved it’s actually more stable than existing vaccines.”
Nigeria proves Rowlands’ warning about the disease recurring. The nation was declared polio free by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2014, but confirmed three more cases in 2016.
India was also declared polio free in 2014 but saw a resurgence in the disease last summer. Health officials had to respond with mass vaccinations in the southern state of Telangana.
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Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only other nations with polio cases. The former had 13 cases of polio in 2016, while the latter had 20.
In terms of foreign aid, Canada has been a world leader, devoting CAN $250 million in 2013 towards wiping out the disease worldwide. The WHO has been active as well, funding this latest research via a $1.5 million grant. Humanitarian efforts have been tremendously successful, but the fight isn’t over yet.
According to the WHO website, “as long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year.”
Professor Nicola Stonehouse, a Leeds University professor co-author of the study, believes the next step is mass production: “Further research is needed to refine them more but we are confident they will work for all three forms of polio. After that, we need to find a way to manufacture them cost effectively on a large scale.”
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