The novel coronavirus aka COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill. The past 8 months are proof of the human and economic devastation this disease has brought on this world and the people living in it. From seemingly richer nations to third world countries, people have shut their doors to contain the spread but then opened them again to continue their economic livelihood. They were rudely awakened by the virus to the possibility of a new normal, of having to live with the virus until there was a cure or a vaccine for it. It was simply a race for countries and research establishments to put together a vaccine that would finally allow the world to breathe again.
Scientists took on this challenge fiercely and many countries like China, Russia, UK and India, to name a few, have presented the world with news of vaccines at various stages of development. While this is encouraging news, it is not only as simple as just succeeding at making the vaccine successfully. Although that is a major breakthrough, other almost equally important challenges lie in mass production and disbursement of these vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine is no less valuable at this point than liquid gold, and challenges lie in the correct pricing of these little vials of life.
There are many research groups who have claimed to have developed the vaccine. But only creating a vaccine is only the tip of the iceberg. There is plenty of work that goes on before and after a vaccine is developed.
- Three phases of trials must show that the vaccine is safe. It would not be accurate to sell and disburse vaccines without knowing and being fully aware about the long term consequences of the drugs being administered.
- Clinical trials must also show that the vaccines provoke an immune response, which protect people from getting sick, allowing their bodies to tackle the unwelcome visitor.
- Ways must be sought to disseminate such a valuable cure to billions around the world.
Medicines regulators like big pharmaceutical stalwarts and organizations like the World Health Organization must approve it before it can be given out to the masses.
- Finally there is the mammoth logistical challenge of actually immunizing most of the world’s population which must be meticulously monitored.
Before the vaccine, the world largely depended on isolating itself and locking itself up to tackle the deadly virus. The success of lockdowns was such that it has made the process of vaccine development slower. There needs to be a sample group large enough to test the vaccines on and the idea of giving people the vaccine and then deliberately infecting them (known as a challenge study) would give quicker answers, but is presently seen as too risky and immoral. Then, to know if the vaccine works, people actually need to be infected naturally, the rate of which has slowed down, thankfully or otherwise, due to the success of lockdowns.
Research is happening at breakneck speed. Around 140 vaccines are in the early development stage and there are at least 24 vaccines that are in clinical trials. So far, Russia seems to have topped the race by bringing the vaccine successfully through to the last stage of human trials. Hearteningly enough, they claim to be rolling out the vaccines as early as a fortnight from now. While some countries are skeptical, others are eager to book them for their countries without delay. While Russian scientists and President Vladimir Putin are repeatedly trying to assure the rest of the world that the vaccines are indeed safe and have not compromised any of the safety protocols, a vast majority of countries are far from convinced. Phase III trials, also known as human trials are underway and a large group of people have been given doses of the medicine as well as placebos to test for antibody generation.
United Kingdom’s Astrazeneca, developed by Vaccitech and the Oxford University have come out with a vaccine that has appeared to generate immune responses in each one of the patients that it was administered to. It is made from a genetically engineered virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees. It has been heavily modified so it cannot cause infections in people and also to make it “look” more like coronavirus. Scientists made this work by transferring the genetic instructions for the coronavirus’s “spike protein” – the vital tool it uses to enter our cells – to the vaccine they were developing. This means the vaccine resembles the coronavirus and the immune system can learn how to attack it. Developers call the vaccine “highly promising” but warn of harmless side effects such as headaches and fevers, curable with a simple paracetamol.
They are still waiting for the trial results for people at severe stages of the virus. It is difficult to restrict trials to the UK alone as infection levels are comparatively low in the UK. More than 10,000 people are needed to volunteer for the vaccine trials and the results are expected to be out by the latter half of this year. If cleared for approval, the first vaccines can come out as early as the end of 2020. While the vaccines will not be widely available for the world as soon as it is approved, the manufacturers will prioritize health workers and the more vulnerable population, for instance the old, the very young and the immune-compromised.
Around 400 million doses of this vaccine have been booked by the European Union alone, for the citizens within that trading zone. Other countries that they are partnering with are China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Latin America and Brazil. They have thus far committed to about 3 billion doses of the vaccine and will be contacting governments, multilateral organizations and other partners around the world to ensure broader disbursement of the vaccines once the clinical trials are successful.
Moderna, an American biotechnology company is also in its final phase three stage of development. They launched their phase three trial on 27th of July 2020 and their final trial will include administering the vaccine to about 30, 000 people at about 89 sites around the United States. The country has already paid Moderna a sizable amount of money and has booked a 100 million vaccines for its citizens, should the trials prove successful.
BioNTech, a German company, joined hands with the American Pfizer and Chinese Fosun to develop an mRNA vaccine. In May, they launched two Phase I and II trials where they found that while both vaccines were effective at eliminating the virus, one of the vaccine samples was more effective than the other by way of having lesser side effects. The vaccine is now in a combination phase of II and III with 30,000 volunteers in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Germany. The government of the United States has booked a 100 million doses of the vaccine with the option of buying 500 million more if the trials were successful. Japan is also said to have booked 120 million doses of the same.
CoronaVac from SinoVac China is using the same technique that Astrazeneca is using to develop their vaccine. The Bangladesh Medical Research Council has given the go-ahead for the phase III trial of the vaccine to be conducted in Bangladesh. The vaccine is set to be applied to some 4200 healthcare workers of seven Covid dedicated hospitals in Dhaka. If the trial succeeds, Bangladesh will be in a prime position to avail the vaccines at a subsidized rate. International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh will be responsible for conducting clinical trials, beginning this August.
The race is on and the timer is set. Experts say that the coronavirus is to be a part of our life and has no plans of leaving in a hurry. However, as the strains of the common flu change, so will the coronavirus and so will the vaccines, and just as the influenza does not pose risks to humankind any more, nor will the coronavirus when the vaccines develop. For now, all we need to do is wait, watch the race and hope the winner favors our country with the winnings. Until then, stay home, stay vigilant and stay safe.