A virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine against the coronavirus, currently in development in Turkey, will be ready for use by the end of the year, professor Hasan Mandal, head of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK) said Monday.
TÜBİTAK oversees the collective and individual efforts of scientists at Turkish universities who are striving to prepare the country’s first vaccine against the deadly disease. It also endorses drug development, and Mandal said two locally-made drugs against the coronavirus will be in use in August.
The VLP vaccine will start the final phase in its development, Phase 3 trials, in August. Mandal told reporters that they plan to start production while the vaccine is in the last stage. He added that it was likely that its jabs would be presented to the public in autumn.
He said two other COVID-19 vaccines were expected to be ready by the end of the year and all had the potential for high efficacy against different variants of the coronavirus.
Mandal said the Phase I trials of the VLP vaccine would be completed by this weekend. “Today, we have 17 projects, including seven vaccine projects (endorsed by TÜBITAK). Three among them are at an advanced stage,” he said. Mandal added that he volunteered for the Phase I trial of the vaccine, along with Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank, and said they would receive their second shots this week. “In a few months, the Phase II trials will be over,” he told reporters.
VLP vaccine works by mimicking the coronavirus. Currently, there are four VLP vaccine candidates in the world. “This vaccine will give protection both against the conventional, early strain of virus from Wuhan, China, to new variants. Phase II trials will focus on variants, particularly the British variant,” Mandal said.
An inactive vaccine is currently undergoing Phase I trials after approval. Mandal said tests were being held at the Ankara City Hospital, noting that it will likely end the first phase by mid-June. “We also have an adenovirus vaccine, similar to Russia’s Sputnik V. It has innovative features providing high efficiency. Currently, it is being assessed by Health Ministry before clinical trials.
He said scientists in the country were also working on two different molecules, originally used in the treatment of other diseases, to use against the coronavirus. “They will start Phase II trials this week,” he said. One of them is ribavirin, developed at Ankara University while the other is Montelukast developed by scientists from Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. “We observed that both of them were more efficient compared to current treatment methods. We hope they will be put into public use in August,” he said.
Ribavirin, also known as tribavirin, is an antiviral medication used in hepatitis C treatment, as well as other viral hemorrhagic fevers. A study in Turkey found that it was able to prevent infections in people exposed to the coronavirus, and reduce the infectiousness of COVID-19.
Montelukast, a molecule used in the routine treatment of asthma, has strong potential to be used in the treatment of the coronavirus. With further trials, the drug can be improved and used against the virus, scientists say. Researchers from Bahçeşehir University and Medipol University in Istanbul have been studying the molecule for a while. The study so far proved in its preclinical trials that the molecule blocked the virus’ entry into the cells and its multiplication when inside the cells.
Mandal was speaking at a biotechnology institute run by TÜBITAK in Kocaeli. He said the institute would provide an infrastructure for future vaccine and drug developments.
“We hear reports that Turkey would not be able to mass-produce vaccines until 2022. This is not true. We have sufficient infrastructure, in pharmaceutical companies, and mass production can start as early as this autumn,” he said.
Despite a widespread vaccination campaign, the country has been struggling to contain skyrocketing infection numbers in the past weeks. A long time after daily cases fluctuated above 40,000, they decreased to around 25,000 for the first time Sunday.
With Sunday’s figures, the total COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the outbreak in the country reached 4.8 million, while the total death toll stood at 40,844. For recoveries, 75,182 patients were declared recovered by the ministry, bringing the total figure to 4.48 million.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the nation’s “sacrifice” was paying off, pointing to a decline in the number of cases and hospitalizations. After witnessing an overwhelming number of new infections, the government decided to reintroduce several restrictions that had been previously eased as part of the normalization process. “We know that the number of fatalities and severely ill people will also decrease soon,” he said. Koca was speaking in Edirne, a northwestern province that had been a hot spot of virus cases last month. Currently, Istanbul leads in the number of cases, with around 854 cases per 100,000 people. A 17-day lockdown that bars intercity travel except for emergencies and involves an all-around curfew except for shopping, is currently in place across the country.
“We imposed some restrictions for two weeks but we were unable to achieve the desired level of decline we wanted. But we believe this 17-day lockdown will ensure this decline. I thank all the citizens for their compliance with rules and wish they continue adhering to them,” Koca said.