7 minute read 21 Oct 2020
Close-up of lab technician examining test tubes in laboratory

How the COVID-19 outbreak could provide synbio’s breakout moment

By EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.

7 minute read 21 Oct 2020

The spotlight will be on synthetic biology if it ends the pandemic and identifies viral threats in crowded spaces.

A globally disruptive event such as the COVID-19 pandemic opens the door to new approaches and accelerates trends already in motion. In the early days of the pandemic, we saw additive manufacturing (3D printing) utilized to produce urgently needed ventilator equipment and personal protective equipment locally as global supply chains broke down.

We also urgently need a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19. As the global health care community mobilizes to this end, synthetic biology (synbio) companies are making a splash with their quick progress so far compared to traditional approaches. Their biology-as-engineering toolset looks poised to provide vaccines and treatments that are more potent, more stable, and easier and quicker to manufacture. These advantages are crucial not only for the current crisis but also for enabling governments and health systems to respond quickly to new and unanticipated future threats.

As we explore in our forthcoming Megatrends 2020 report, synbio applications bring profound changes to the production of food, materials and chemicals, even as they help address pressing global challenges such as chronic disease, climate change, and food security. Yet with the world focused on biology as never before, it may be the response to COVID-19 that provides synbio’s breakout moment.

Reading and (re)writing the code of life

Synbio is an interdisciplinary science that uses an engineering approach to biology to design and build functions in cells. At the heart of synbio are tools for reading and writing DNA, the code that drives cell operations. The synbio approach also standardizes biological parts and systems to copy, change and scale genetic innovations quickly and less expensively. Several technology advances are speeding synbio’s development:

  • Faster, cheaper DNA sequencing and synthesis
  • Machine learning’s ability to crunch data to identify ideal DNA configurations for products or processes
  • Editing tools, e.g., CRISPR, that can snip and combine genes quickly, with surgical precision
  • Public and private “biofoundries,” facilities that provide the computational and biological infrastructure to rapidly design, prototype and test living systems for specific applications

For a sense of the speed of change, consider that the first sequencing (reading) of the human genome required 13 years and US$3 billion; today, it takes a week and US$600.1 This increasing speed and power drives the agile “design-test-build-learn” method employed by synthetic biologists.
 

The first sequencing of the human genome required 13 years and US$3 billion; today, it takes a week and US$600.

The GP-Write Project, an outgrowth of the Human Genome Project involving hundreds of scientists, aims to make our ability to synthesize (write) human and other large-scale genomes as fast, powerful and cheap as our ability to sequence (read) them. Achieving this will supercharge progress in human health and magnify synbio’s impact across industries.

Synbio vaccines for COVID-19 

When the pandemic struck, several synbio companies pivoted from developing vaccines for other viruses to focus on COVID-19. Their bioengineering tools and approach have already enabled several of them to bring forward COVID-19 vaccine candidates faster and with greater potential functionality than classical approaches, which involve creating a weakened or neutralized form of the virus.

One synbio company has already created the first COVID-19 vaccine candidate to reach human trials, setting a speed record for achieving this milestone. Using only the virus’ genetic data, they formulated a vaccine-based messenger RNA (mRNA) for patient testing in 25 days. Another synbio company brought the second vaccine candidate to clinical trials, this one using a small snippet of DNA rather than mRNA. Vaccines like these code cells to produce the viral proteins that trigger an immune response.

And yet another group is pursuing a vaccine where the immune response is sparked by self-assembling protein nanoparticles. The resulting vaccine could provide immunity to multiple strains of the virus at once and wouldn’t require refrigeration during distribution, an important benefit in resource-poor countries.2

Because these synbio vaccines don’t involve cultivating the virus in any form, their manufacture requires much less space, doses occupy less volume and scaling up production can go faster. As with any vaccine, however, they will have to be proven effective in human trials, something never assured.

COVID-19 antibody therapeutics

While vaccines are key to definitively ending the COVID-19 pandemic, antibody therapies are essential to blunt its human toll in the interim. The principle is simple: give infected patients the antibodies that can fight off the viral infection to help them recover; give the antibodies to healthy people to improve their resistance temporarily. The classical ways to produce antibodies are to extract them from the blood of convalescent patients or to produce them in genetically modified animals, such as mice. Both methods face the challenge of time and scaling to meet the massive need.

Several synbio companies have jumped in with potential antibody solutions. One company, for example, started with five antibodies to the SARS-CoV-1, the virus which caused the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the one most closely related to COVID-19. The company sequenced and virtually reshuffled the DNA of the SARS antibodies, creating billions of variants which it then scanned to find the ones that would bind with COVID-19. Finally, it created multiple new human antibodies and entered them into safety and efficacy trials.

Beyond the immediate crisis

Beyond vaccines and antibodies, synbio will have an important role in the longer-term fight against COVID-19 and the other possible pandemic pathogens.

A mutation in COVID-19 could render a vaccine ineffective and cause a new outbreak. To support the development of a long-lasting vaccine, researchers published a map of the virus’ epitopes, the parts of the virus to which antibodies attach themselves. By signposting the epitopes that rarely mutate, this data will help synbio teams design vaccines and antibodies that confer long-lasting immunity.

As COVID-19 has spread, so has the concern about the virus persisting on surfaces in public spaces. In the future, will parts of cities be designated viral “go” and “no go” zones as microbiomes change?

As COVID-19 has spread, so has the concern about the virus and other pathogens persisting on surfaces in public spaces. In response, the not-for-profit MetaSub Consortium, which samples and maps the DNA of the organisms in the microbiomes of cities, subways and beaches worldwide, launched a pilot program to look for COVID-19 in more than a dozen major cities around the world. Preliminary results for the New York City subway showed no evidence of the virus. As a result of initiatives like this, we’ll gain much greater visibility into the microbiomes of our shared spaces and understanding of whether they harbor any potential threats to human health. In the future, will parts of cities be designated viral “go” and “no go” zones as microbiomes change?

As the COVID-19 pandemic painfully demonstrates, the time to effective vaccines and therapies is measured in human lives. The key advantage of successful RNA and DNA vaccines and therapies is that once the delivery system and immune response mechanism has been established, the genetic code at the center can be swapped in and out quickly to fight new threats. Synbio may help us save lives by enabling a much faster response to the next major disease outbreak.

Summary

The synbio vaccines and therapies for COVID-19 still must prove safe and effective in human trials – and there are never guarantees. And because they are so new, many of these synbio solutions have yet to exit clinical trials for their original applications to other viruses, let alone to COVID-19. However, they are off to a strong start. If a synbio company is the first, or among the first, in the race to end this pandemic, it will be an important validation of the engineering approach to biology and a dramatic debut to the broader public.

About this article

By EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.