By Mike May, PhD

Before COVID-19, the phrase “zoonotic pathogen” meant nothing to most everyday people—maybe it still doesn’t. For experts in infectious diseases, though, zoonotic pathogens mean potential danger.

As toxicologist Mary Garvey, PhD, a lecturer at the Atlantic Technological University in Ireland, and her colleagues recently put it: “Emerging, re-emerging, and zoonotic viral pathogens represent a serious threat to human health, resulting in morbidity, mortality, and potentially economic instability at a global scale.”

In the wake of COVID-19—if we really are in the wake instead of just in another lull in infections—that description feels almost like an understatement. Based on experience from a recent pandemic and fears of future ones, the question is: Can bioprocessors do even more to fight tomorrow’s pandemics?

In large part, public-health agencies around the world fought COVID-19 with vaccines. Unprecedented levels of cooperation among academic, government, and industrial groups quickly produced a collection of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Garvey and her colleagues applaud a vaccine-based approach, but they note a key limitation—at least where bioprocessors rely on conventional methods of making vaccines. As they pointed out: “Traditional vaccines remain highly effective at providing high antibody titers, but are, however, slow to manufacture in times of emergency.”

The continuous option

Continuous processing offers one option to accelerate the production of vaccines, but work remains to be done on this approach. For example, quickly creating safe vaccines with continuous processing requires advanced downstream methods of viral clearance. Nonetheless, Garvey and her colleagues noted: “The biopharma industry has yet to define preferred comprehensive technologies, approaches, and protocols for viral safety in continuous processing.”

Bioprocessing technology might create a desired combination of faster manufacturing and even safer vaccines. Here, Garvey and her colleagues pointed out multi-column capture and sensor-based adaptive control processes as tools being applied and improved.

Whatever it takes to design and manufacture vaccines quickly and efficiently will be a good investment in the future health of people around the world. SARS-CoV-2 was not the first outbreak from a zoonotic pathogen, and it won’t be the last. Garvey and her colleagues point out that “approximately 80% of human viral pathogens are zoonotic with climatic, agricultural, and anthropological factors contributing to disease outbreak.”

For many, the word “climatic” might jump out. As NASA reported: “June 2023 was the hottest June on record according to NASA’s global temperature analysis.” Consequently, the urgency of developing even better ways to fight future pandemics could be more crucial than even the experts imagine. To meet that need, bioprocessors might rely on improvements in traditional methods of bioprocessing vaccines or make an even bigger move to nucleotide-based vaccines.

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