At a time when the world is looking for a breakthrough to tackle the spurting cases of COVID-19, this Chennai and Palo Alto-based startup is working on a non-invasive digital vaccine with an aim to curb the menace.
The role of a vaccine is to stimulate the immune system of an individual to respond and produce antibodies that will help in fighting the disease.
Digital vaccine, on the other hand, enables neuro-behaviour and physiological modulation to protect health at an individual and societal scale.
Launched in 2013 by Bhargav Sri Prakash, FriendsLearn was started as a life science research organisation. In 2019, it commercially launched its first digital vaccine for children under the brand name FOOYA in partnership with US-based Carnegie Mellon University. The vaccine works to lower the risk of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and cancer.
It is being delivered through select schools which have partnered with FriendsLearn. They are able to provide this as part of a school health programme. The cost of the digital vaccine is $100 per child per month and the child needs to be given this exposure for at least one year.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
These are available in a subscription-driven, game like mobile app formats. The vaccine is being used by over 3,000 children currently.
FriendsLearn is now expanding its partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to undertake a proposed population health human trial with a digital vaccine candidate -- FYA-003, for COVID-19.
“We want to lower the risk, symptom severity and the rate of transmission,” Prakash told Moneycontrol, adding that the company will start filing for regulatory approvals across multiple countries shortly and will thereafter go for human trials.
The digital vaccine for COVID-19 is thereafter being targeted to go live by the first quarter of 2021.
Like FOOYA, FYA-003 will focus on neuromodulation and neurocognitive training. It will use immersive virtual reality to induce neuro-behaviour-physiological change through the gut-brain axis and the body’s immune system.
However, unlike FOOYA, which was targeted at children, FYA-003 is envisioned more broadly for a wider age group. But to begin with, the company plans to do 30,000 human trials involving only children given their decade-long pediatric expertise.
The trials are likely to start next month across the US, the UK, Europe, Botswana, Singapore and India.
The idea is to develop a drug-free and non-invasive digital vaccine that can save lives without potential long-term undesirable side effects.
The company claims that the digital vaccine platform also helps induce habits in humans which will lead to lower risk of exposures as well as the viral load with an overall goal of reducing the probability of contracting the coronavirus.
So far, India has recorded 23,96,637 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 47,033 deaths. On a global level, the number of cases has crossed 2.05 crore with 7.44 lakh deaths.
The development happens at a time when only one country in the world -- Russia has claimed to have developed the coronavirus vaccine so far. The COVID-19 vaccine in the country has been jointly developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute and Russia’s Defence Ministry and will be the first vaccine candidate against the novel coronavirus to get registered.