Covid-19: Unveiling ground-breaking research on brain impacts & the search for novel, plant-based vaccines

September 3, 2020 10:15 - 11:45

Location: Auditorium 28A


As an ESOF exclusive, the results of two major research programmes looking at brain impacts of COVID-19 and plant-based vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease will be presented for the first time, followed by an interactive key influencer debate moderated by the Financial Times Science Editor.

Led by Johns Hopkins University researchers, we will see how lab-grown ‘mini-brains’ (tiny tissue cultures that simulate whole organs made from human cells) can be infected with SARS-Cov-2. This breakthrough helps us to understand the disease’s profound neurological impacts. Patients exhibit symptoms ranging from inflammation, dizziness, headache and delirium to seizures, nerve damage and stroke. Numbness, weakness and memory problems can persist long after the virus has gone. Subtle brain damage might only become apparent in years to come. A special concern is that brain development of the embryo in pregnant patients could be affected. If SARS-Cov-2 can get past the blood-brain barrier it might also complicate efforts to eradicate the infection through drugs or the immune system’s ability to clear it. Possible permanent “latent” infections could impact on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This presentation reveals how the virus infects neurons in the mini-brains via the ACE2 human protein that is known to be an important entry point for SARS-Cov-2. The virus then multiplies within the neurons. Within three days the number of copies increases at least a hundredfold.

Our second SARS-CoV-2 case study provides unique insights into the vaccine development race from the angle of engineering a potential antigen in fast-growing, genetically engineered tobacco plants. Directed from Southampton, UK, and undertaken in Kentucky, USA, scientists cloned a portion of the virus's genetic sequence and fused it to a novel tobacco virus antigen, a protein that induces the production of antibodies and enables the body's immune system to prevent infection. This presentation will underscore how well the tobacco plant is suited to medical research. It cannot host pathogens that cause human disease and potential antigens can accumulate in as little as six weeks compared to several months using conventional methods. A further advantage is that the novel formulation being produced is stable at room temperature, unlike conventional vaccines often requiring refrigeration. The speaker will update us on progress in pre-clinical and clinical testing while mapping out the latest partnership discussions with various government agencies. The same research team received FDA Emergency Use Authorisation for a tobacco-based treatment for Ebola and has recently commenced clinical studies for a rapid-response novel Quadrivalent Influenza Vaccine (QIV).

Teeing up our onsite and online debate, we hear about the emerging field of ‘humanomics’ and people-perspective research being carried out from Denmark. Results from cognitive and social psychology point to the fact that our selection of information is intuitively based on predetermined signals of trust and identities. A vaccine may become the most valued resource on the planet for most, yet when the time comes, these efforts might prove futile if governments and ‘experts’ fail to convince us to trust science. Studies point to an emerging ‘infodemic’: the unpreceded growth of misinformation and anti-vaccine movements. Confirmation bias, group-think and cultural cognition combined with the rapid spread of online information pose spectacular challenges to the organisations and governments that manufacture, approve and market vaccines. The WHO has warned of an immediate social and communication crisis.

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