Last March, proposals were sought as part of an international plan to set up a central laboratory network to compare immunological responses of different Covid-19 vaccines. The request for proposal had gone out from CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) and by October, eight labs were signed up for the job including India’s Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI). The idea was to have a lab network that runs “assays using exactly the same methodology, using the same reagents so that the results you get from all those labs are comparable, harmonised and standardised,” says Valentina Bernasconi, scientist with CEPI and Project Leader for the Centralised Labs Network. The grand plan is to expand the network “ tackle other diseases, other than Covid,” she added.

For starters, the centralised network sought to harmonise incoming data on the performance of multiple vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. It comprised labs based in the North America (two), Europe (four) and Asia (one more). A lab has since been added in Mexico and one more is on the cards, she said.

Like making pizza

Explaining why it was necessary, Valentina points out, different vaccine developers normally used their own labs to do the testing. “...They look very much alike but they can be tweaked to have results in different ways. So if you don’t have a real mean of comparison, you end up comparing apples with bananas,” she says.

It’s like making pizza, she adds, “You have the recipes and ingredients. But if somebody else is trying to make pizza somewhere else in the world, may be has his own recipe and ingredients, the results will not be the same.” With at least 400 developers working on Covid-19 vaccines, “you can imagine how messy it is to compare across them,” she says, driving home the need for standardised methodology and testing materials.

Since its launch in October 2020, over 20 Covid-19 vaccine developers have used CEPI’s centralised labs for testing, analysing over 6,000 samples. The labs are put through a process of “tech transfer” to standarise processes, says Valentina. And India’s THSTI was the first to finish and start testing samples, she said, adding that the Department of Biotechnology had been of much support.

Testing samples

From this month, the network expects to assess vaccines against the different virus variants (Alpha, Beta and Gamma) and the highly transmissible Delta variant, Valentina said. Outlining how it works, she said, the different vaccine developers send their samples to these labs. They are tested and the data is shared with the respective developers, who are also encouraged to publish these findings.

CEPI was not allowed to publish the data, she clarified, adding that they were sent “blind data” that did not reveal if the samples sent by the vaccine-makers were from people who were vaccinated. While a head-to-head comparison, in a sense, would not be available for public consumption, health regulators would be able to compare the data emerging from the analysis with standardised protocols, she explained. And, vaccine developers too would know if their candidate was protective against multiple variants and whether they could advance to later-stage clinical trials.

CEPI supported vaccine developers and Valentina is optimistic about the newer flexible technologies “that allow you to change the vaccine just a little bit to cover the variants”, and quickly. The future is filled with possibilities, including a universal vaccine for variants and collapsed timelines (from 10 to one year) for vaccines development. After all, the Covid-19 vaccine has been developed in the shortest time, yet.

Launched in Davos (2017), CEPI is an international partnership of public, private, philanthropic and civil organisations. India's Dr Gagandeep Kang (professor with The Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, Christian Medical College, Vellore) and Dr Soumya Swaminathan (Chief Scientist, World Health Organization) are on its board.