Viruses and Vaccines

A multimedia conversation with virologist Arleen Ramsingh, inventor of a COVID-19 vaccine undergoing clinical trials.

Downtown NEWS


One of the first responses to a pandemic has to be the creation of vaccines. Vaccines aim to boost the immune response against a virus or bacteria. When people are exposed, in this case to the real Coronavirus, the immune system will block or quickly control the pathogen, hence preventing those exposed to get sick.

The million-dollar question, rather the multibillion-dollar question — spent every year by bio-med and pharma companies, government agencies, and university labs to develop vaccines and medications, most failed attempts — has to be: How long it takes to create a vaccine against COVID-19?

If history is a guide, the process of developing a vaccine takes a decade or two. But we are talking 2020 science and technology, and high pressure — political, economic, the survival of the species — and people are venturing optimistic timetables, say, one-year, sixteen months… “Well,” said Arleen Ramsingh, “if everything goes perfectly, including partnerships with companies, grant-writing, manufacturing… Perhaps it can be done quickly.”

Who is Arleen Ramsingh? A brilliant scientist, a virologist, educated at the University of Toronto, the Univerity of Alberta, and Yale University, where she did a post-doctoral fellowship, and an expert on vaccines with 30 years of experience. She has just invented a vaccine for COVID-19, an invention she turned over the University of Washington, as she observed: “We are in the middle of a Pandemic, we can't be fighting over who owns what.” (No wonder MIT Technology Review claims Toronto is Silicon Valley’s nice version.)


Before getting into the vaccine itself, I will let Dr. Ramsingh, Arlene, explore the world of viruses in the following 6-minute video:

The Nature of Coronavirus

The first step in strategizing a vaccine is identifying the viral protein to be targeted. Coronavirus has a spike-protein, a crown-like shape from which the name derives. A virus is nothing by itself, lacking the mechanism to reproduce independently. It is a parasite that depends on other organisms to multiply. So they invade cells and attach to a receptor — another protein in the cell’s outer membrane. Once it gets inside the cell, it begins to replicate causing the person to get sick.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified in China, 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library

Audiovisual 2

Peculiarities of Coronaviruses.

The Vaccine

There are three types of vaccines, RNA, DNA, and Protein. Protein vaccines are the only ones used in humans. The flu vaccine, for example, is a protein vaccine. Arlene created a protein vaccine.

“Currently, there are no approved DNA or RNA vaccines. Some of them have been tested in small, early-phase clinical trials, for safety and ability to induce an immune response. However, they have not previously been tested in large-scale efficacy trials or mass-produced or approved for clinical use,” said Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in a New York Times Magazine article.

A top vaccine expert, Arlene served as a reviewer for Dr. Fauci’s Institute on HIV vaccines. She had to analyze vaccine strategies from all over the world and poke holes in them. Rigorous is an indispensable adjective for a scientist.

Developing her vaccine started with poking holes in existing and proposed vaccine strategies for COVID-19. She then created a brand new molecule, “and I was able to come out with a new protein vaccine. I sent it t to a colleague in New York, a structural biologist. After some refining, it was ready for a test trial.”

When a vaccine is ready for testing, animals come into play, those that can best reproduce the human disease. For COVID-19, scientists have identified mice, hamsters, monkeys.

Audiovisual 3

Anatomy of a vaccine creation.


Arlene resides in Downtown Miami. Like the rest of us, she and her husband have been in lockdown. Unlike must of us, though, Arleen coupled her social isolation with science and birthed a vaccine.

America’s symbol of inventiveness, that notion of sneaking to the garage after dinner to invent things is implausible in downtown Miami. For one, Downtowners have no private garages. And the image that seises our minds when it comes to pharmaceutical inventions is that of futuristic labs peopled by serious professionals— smiling not allowed here — , robotics, and state of the art technology. Yet, Arleene sat down at her kitchen to consume copious amounts of scientific literature. For three days she did nothing but analyze data and read… Still, for a non-scientist, three days seems incomprehensibly inadequate to cook up a vaccine. Of course, it’s three days with thirty years of experience behind. And the husband did help. He did all the cooking and brushed up on virology to serve as an interlocutor. By the way, love does play a role even in scientists’ lives. When Arlene finished her fellowship at Yale and was getting ready to return to Toronto, she met her future husband, also a scientist at Yale, and the rest is history at the highest levels of the scientific world.

June 19, 2020.

Downtown News: Any developments? You were waiting to hear about testing …

Arlene Ramsingh: First test results are in — we have antibodies to the Spike protein of SARS-CoV2 after just one dose of the vaccine. We are currently testing the neutralizing activity of those antibodies.

June 22, 2020.

Arlene Ramsingh: Second set of data just in- we have a strong neutralizing antibody response against the virus after just one dose of the vaccine!! Very excited about this!!

Raul Guerrero is the Director of the Downtown Arts + Science Salon, and Editor of Downtown News.

Victoria Iparraguirre, video producer.



Downtown NEWS

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