What are the chances for COVID-19 vaccine
Researchers are accelerating what usually takes 10 to 15 years so that a vaccine could be ready by next year. But it is no easy task, so what do the experts have to say about the hopes for success?
Latest reports indicate that at least 165 vaccine candidates are being developed across the world, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, China and Singapore.
Nearly 30 projects are already in various phases of human trials, including one jointly developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and US pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics.
But developing a vaccine is no easy task. What usually takes 10 to 15 years, researchers are now accelerating so that a vaccine could be ready for emergency use by next year.
With the process on the fast track, the hope of a vaccine comes with vital questions. And here are some answers from the experts.
IS A VACCINE BY 2021 REALLY POSSIBLE?
Six of the vaccine candidates are now in the third stage of testing, and they “look potentially interesting”, Dr Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute, said on the programmed In Conversation.
“They make the right protective responses. They all protect monkeys against infection ... So there’s a lot of suggestive evidence that they might protect for at least a short period of time. We don’t really know, though,” he said.
“We have to be very careful when we use animal studies ... So now it’s (about) making sure that we can show that it actually prevents infection in humans.”
He cited the potential of the vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford and drug giant AstraZeneca as an example. Recent results of a study, involving more than 1,000 human volunteers, showed that the vaccine generated a strong immune response.
Dr Kim thinks it is possible: “If everything works as it should, by the end of the year, we may have a readout on at least one of the vaccines currently in the pipeline — that it may protect or may not protect populations.”
HOW SAFE WILL IT BE?
The bigger question, Dr Kim noted, is whether there will be “enough safety data”, as the final phase of human testing in the “normal development cycle” of a vaccine is five to 10 years, instead of six months.
The “thousands” of safety evaluations to be done this year will be a “good amount”, although he acknowledged: “We aren’t really going to be able to tell.
“In the short term, to the point where the vaccine will either be given in emergency-use authorisation or an approval for market, we’d have less long-term safety information than we normally have.”
So vaccine developers should “follow the people who receive the vaccine and placebo for a much longer time than we normally do”, he said, suggesting “two or three years or longer”.
WILL COUNTRIES HAVE EQUAL ACCESS TO THE VACCINE?
Much is at stake in the COVID-19 vaccine race, although it has to do not only with science, but also politics.
The current US administration has already been accused of trying to monopolise first rights to vaccines being developed by a company in Germany and one in France — alleged attempts that the two European governments made sure to block.
But with the vaccine development taking place across the world, he reiterated his belief that a handful of vaccines will emerge, which will “ensure” supply. There is also “a lot of discussion” about avoiding vaccine hoarding, he cited.
“The dialogue will help us to ensure equitable distribution. It may not be 100 per cent perfect, but there’s a lot of consciousness,” he added. “At the end of the day, we’d like to find a level playing field.”
SO HOW SOON CAN EVERYONE GET VACCINATED?
As someone with no comorbidities, or underlying diseases, Mr Jain does not expect to be a candidate for immunisation before the end of next year. That means vaccination for everyone only by 2022.
“There is a manufacturing capacity out there. And the real question will be how quickly can we mobilise it,” said Dr Kim.
“Countries and companies are already making contracts with different organizations (and) manufacturers to be able to ensure that the vaccine is made ... (but) we’ve never undertaken something like this before.”
WILL A VACCINE MEAN A RETURN TO NORMAL?
Most experts agree that a vaccine will not get rid of the coronavirus. “Too many people are now infected with Sars-CoV-2 that it won’t disappear,” said Prof Ooi.
Assuming vaccination rates are at 60 to 70 per cent five years from now, however, then he would say “we’ve protected the population from the consequences of an outbreak”.
“You’ll see an occasional COVID-19 infection that’ll look like someone has a fever and maybe some cough or shortness of breath. You’ll test them, and you’ll find COVID. But it won’t spread in the population because enough people are immune.”
For now, the “bread and butter” is safe distancing, a high level of hygiene “and all that”, said Prof Ooi. “Then you overlay that (with) vaccines and drugs. Then we have a chance of really overcoming this virus.”
If 60 to 70 per cent of people need to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity”, that may mean “vaccinating in the order of four billion to six billion people”.