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Shedding Light on COVID-19 Vaccine Development

Scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) identified potential vaccine targets for SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Early 2020 saw the emergence and spread of COVID-19 across 28 different countries. This viral disease has now been found to be caused by SARS-CoV-2 due to its similarities to SARS-CoV which caused the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003. As of 26 February 2020, the number of confirmed cases worldwide has reached 81,109 with a total of 2,761 deaths.

Both SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 belong to the same Betacoronavirus genus, considering genetic similarity, the research team from HKUST made use of it to experimentally determine immunological data to identify a set of B cell and T cell epitopes that match exactly to SARS-CoV-2.

These epitopes are biomarkers recognized by the immune system to trigger actions against the virus. Genetic sequences of the epitopes were found to be genetically stable across available SARS-CoV-2 sequences, making suitable immune targets and potentially offer protection against COVID-19.

The research team was led by data scientists Professor Matthew McKay, a Professor in the Departments of Electronic & Computer Engineering and Chemical & Biological Engineering and Dr. Ahmed Abdul Quadeer, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Electronic & Computer Engineering. Their findings were published on the journal Viruses in February 2020.

Prof. McKay highlighted that “Despite similarities between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, there is genetic variation between the two, and it is not obvious if epitopes that elicit an immune response against SARS-CoV will likely be effective against SARS-CoV-2. We found that only roughly 20 percent of the SARS-CoV epitopes map identically to SARS-CoV-2 and believe these are promising candidates.”

“For the identified T cell epitopes, we also performed a population coverage analysis and determined a set of epitopes that is estimated to provide broad coverage globally as well as in China” said Dr. Quadeer. The estimated population coverage represents the percentage of individuals within the selected population that are likely to elicit an immune response to at least one epitope from the identified set. [APBN]