PEOPLE. Several new variants of the coronavirus are attracting attention, and many people now wonder how long the available vaccines will provide adequate protection. Ali Harandi, vaccine expert at the University of Gothenburg, is looking into this. He and his colleagues are studying new ways to differentiate antibodies against different virus variants and against COVID vaccines.
Since the COVID-19-pandemic started in Sweden, Ali Harandi has emerged as one of the University of Gothenburg’s experts in the field of vaccines. He thinks he has a responsibility to dispel misleading information being disseminated in society, both out of sheer ignorance and with the intention to spread falsehoods.
Reading up on questions takes time
Ali Harandi had already become a sought-after media expert in 2015, when he was involved in two European Union (EU) projects on Ebola. Both projects evaluated the human response to the recently approved Ebola vaccine. He now spends much of his time staying abreast of the COVID-19 pandemic and advances knowledge occurring around the world. He answers journalists’ questions almost daily in newspapers and other media. He often asks for a little extra time so he can familiarize himself with the specific issue.
“When Dagens Nyheter, the Stockholm daily, contacted me the other day wanting an interview about the side effects of the vaccine, I asked for time to read through all the material so that I had a good overview. It took several hours to read through all the Excel files, but that was absolutely necessary,” says Harandi.
He thinks it is important for experts in epidemiology and immunology to comment on the pandemic and vaccines in the media. To make sure that the information is correct, he generally asks to review texts before publication, which often goes well if there is time before the deadline. Harandi is also careful to select information he thinks benefits the general public and to winnow out the pieces of information he believes only cause confusion or risk leading to misunderstandings.
International research collaborations
Harandi has long researched mucosal immunity and vaccine immunology, and he has also served as an advisor for several European research organizations, biotechnology companies and international research funding bodies. In recent years he has been involved in several European and international research consortia seeking to develop badly needed vaccines for diseases spreading in developing countries. He now heads a vaccine research laboratory with about eight members at the Institute of Biomedicine at the University of Gothenburg, which also collaborates with other teams and with Core Facilities in its research. The laboratory currently is in the final phase of the latest of the major EU projects. Among other things, it analyzes samples for the immune response of the Ebola vaccine in West Africa.
Ali Harandi is also affiliated with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he is a visiting associate professor at the university’s Vaccine Evaluation Center.
The virus is evolving
Since the virus multiplies rapidly and erratically, genetic defects often occur that can affect the virus’ characteristics. This happens with all viruses. Some of these genetic mutations may prove to benefit the virus by making it easier for it to bind to human cells. These variants may then come to dominate the spreading of the virus in large areas. To date, worrisome variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus originating in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil have attracted attention, and recently new variants emerging in California may also become a problem. Analyses of samples from RNA sequencing and the polymerase chain reaction tests conducted in Sweden show that several of these variants, especially the variant from the United Kingdom, have spread in Sweden.
Of course, the big question is whether the vaccines currently available will also provide sufficient protection against the altered viruses.
“Several vaccine manufacturers have already started to modify their vaccines so that they can counter the evolution of the virus. And some believe that we may need to receive a new COVID vaccine every year, just as we do today with the flu. But there are also researchers who are trying to develop a more universal COVID vaccine that could work for many of the new variants that can occur,” says Harandi.
The variant behind healed infection
To know the version of the virus with which a person has been infected, a sample from an ongoing infection still needs to be analyzed, and at this point we cannot determine in retrospect which variant caused the illness. Together with his colleagues, Ali Harandi recently mapped the antibody response of patients who had COVID-19 for the entire proteome of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2. Harandi has just started a new research project along with Magnus Gisslén and Magnus Lindh, both professors in the field of infection at the University of Gothenburg, and other research partners. They aim to develop antibody tests that can also be used to track the variant of the virus with which the person in question has been infected and to separate antibody responses after infection from antibodies after vaccination.
“We believe that we should be able to develop a test that could show which variant was involved several months after infection occurred. This would provide valuable information and supplement data on which viruses are circulating. In addition, these kinds of tests could differentiate antibodies after vaccination from the response after a natural infection with one of the virus variants,” says Harandi. He adds that both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have already begun modifying their vaccines to also make them effective against the virus variants that have caused alarm.
Ali Harandi came to Gothenburg from his native Iran in the late 1990s to pursue a doctorate in immunology. He arrived with a master’s degree in public health. After training in immunology and epidemiology in Tehran, he helped with a clinical trial of a WHO-supported vaccine candidate for the skin disease leishmaniasis, which is caused by a parasite spread by sandflies in tropical and subtropical countries. Ali remembers how he and his colleagues went door-to-door in an area where the infection had spread in 40-degree Celsius temperatures with vaccine on ice in insulated bags.
“That experience has been important for me in my continued work as a vaccine researcher. It gave me a realistic and valuable picture of the practical barriers to mass vaccination in low- and middle-income countries,” says Harandi.
Everyone must be safe
During a pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe, he points out. The virus continues to spread in parts of the world where few are vaccinated, which increases the risk of new variants emerging that can also spread in middle- and high-income countries. This means we need a supreme, global effort so that vaccines can be purchased and also distributed in low-income countries. Several initiatives from various organizations are under way to meet this need, such as the vaccine alliance GAVI, the Gates Foundation and COVAX, WHO’s initiative for vaccines against COVID-19, but greater efforts are needed to complete the task:
“Many problems need to be solved. In many countries, for example, it is impossible to store the vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celsius. There are often no real roads in the countryside. When people in remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa are to receive the vaccine, couriers need to carry the vaccine on their backs to reach them.”
BY: ELIN LINDSTRÖM
PHOTO: JOHAN WINGBORG