The Jab The World Awaits
Despite herculean efforts to contain spread of the novel coronavirus, the death toll is well over the 200,000-mark and there are over 4 million positive cases. The pandemic has stressed healthcare systems, pressured economies and is giving world leaders sleepless nights. The race to create a vaccine is on – the country that gets there first stands to not only gain monetarily but also in prestige.
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The global economy is in doldrums, people are in lockdown, borders have been closed, trade has ground to a standstill. The upshot: global economic growth for 2020 is seen falling to 2.4 per cent. And it may slide further making recovery even more painful if the global hibernation to ward off the rampaging coronavirus continues. But the world must come out at some point soon to take on the virus. And it will take nothing less than an antidote for the deadly virus to start putting life back on track. Already, funding is being targeted towards research for developing a vaccine. Numerous drugs are being tested the world over, and everyday there are reports of progress being made on the vaccine front.
Recent reports suggest that Italy has successfully developed a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus. Researchers at the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Italy claimed the vaccine developed by Rome-based Takis Biotech generated antibodies in mice, which prevent the virus from infecting cells and would work effectively on humans. Takis Biotech’s CEO Luigi Aurisicchio told the Italian news agency ANSA that human tests are expected after this summer.
Israel too claims to have developed an antibody against the novel coronavirus. This antibody attacks and neutralises the virus in the body of the sick person. According to Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, scientists at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) have been successful in this endeavour. "I am proud of the institute staff for this terrific breakthrough. Their creativity and the Jewish mind brought about this amazing achievement,” said the minister in a statement. In fact, the development process is over and the institute would be starting the process of patenting and producing it on a large scale. However, there is no clarity if human trails have been conducted.
The United States and the United Kingdom recently issued a joint advisory stating that cyber criminals and hackers are targeting Covid-19 vaccine research and other sensitive health research data. In the current environment, such research and intelligence would be extremely valuable. It is understood that medical research organizations, universities and pharmaceutical companies are being targeted. China, Russia and Iran are believed to be the countries that are engaging in this cyber espionage. Oxford University in England, which is on the brink of creating a vaccine, is reported to have had a hacking scare though there have been no reports of any successful breach or data theft.
Oxford University in collaboration with the Serum Institute in India is working on a vaccine that is undergoing clinical trials and is slated to hit the market by September. In fact, the Serum Institute has begun manufacturing even before the trials have concluded so that once approved the vaccine is available on a large scale. “We'll start manufacturing on great personal cost and risk, so that we get a head-start on a vaccine, that may work,” tweeted Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India.
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairperson & Managing Director, Biocon said the vaccine her company is working on will likely be ready for clinical trials in the next nine months or so.
China has reported that a vaccine they tested on monkeys has proved successful in creating antibodies against the novel coronavirus. Clinical trials for PicoVacc – the vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech -- will start later this year. While in the US, Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have begun human trials for a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and if proven effective it will be ready for large-scale distribution by the end of the year.
Taking the Short Cut
As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 120 vaccines have been proposed worldwide and they are tracking the progress made on them. The WHO, in fact, has encouraged and facilitated exchange of results and collaboration between developers and researchers, which would help with evaluation of the vaccine and speed up the process. They are also coordinating clinical trials to help accelerate the process.
Normally, it takes years to develop a new vaccine. Researches study the virus, get funding and approvals and this is a lengthy process. The question therefore is how have most of these companies managed to shorten the time required to produce the vaccine? To hasten the process, scientists have relied on the previous research conducted during the SARS and MERS outbreak, which were also caused by the coronavirus. However, there are voices that caution against speeding things up. Under normal circumstances and by following regular timelines only a small number of vaccines eventually get approved therefore, it is prudent to stick to the process mandated.
According to Charu Sehgal, Partner and Leader, Lifesciences and Healthcare, Deloitte India, “Vaccine creation is a complex endeavour that follows strict norms, takes time and investment. However never before has the medical research community, governments, pharma industry and philanthropic organisations of the entire world come together towards a common cause. Governments across the globe have pledged billions of dollars; nations have compressed vaccine development timelines by expediting approval process; many countries are collaborating on research and development; pharmaceutical firms and philanthropic organizations are investing to set-up manufacturing units for promising vaccine candidates prior to approval – most of which was previously inconceivable. This kind of unprecedented multilateral global support has led many to believe that the probability of developing a vaccine in less than a year is relatively high.
However, we must remember that even if we discover a vaccine, we would need 8 billion doses transported and administered across the globe which is an ambitious task.”
While all this research is taking place at breakneck speed, it is worth mentioning that Dr. David Nabarro, special envoy to the World Health Organisation on Covid-19 in a recent interview to a television network mentioned the likelihood of a vaccine never being successfully developed.
Sehgal believes, “while a vaccine is the desired ultimate solution and the world is hoping for this to happen, it is indeed possible that it may take years to come through. After all, we still do not have one for HIV. Therefore, instead of anchoring the entire world’s hope on a successful vaccine, the world will have to work around learning to live with the virus while research continues. It would be prudent to continue exploring other options of both prevention and cure that could manage the symptoms and reduce morbidity.”
Governments / states, businesses and even corporate leaders are pledging funds towards efforts being made to fight the deadly virus. Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates are working towards fighting the coronavirus outbreak by building manufacturing facilities for seven most promising vaccine candidates. They have already pledged close to $250 million to fight the pandemic.
Earlier this month, as a response to the WHO’s call for global collaboration in the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak, an alliance of world leaders pledged $8 billion towards the fight. France, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Norway, Japan and Saudi Arabia were some of the countries that were part of this alliance. The United States and China were not a part of the virtual summit where the pledge was made to ensure sufficient funds for diagnostic treatments and vaccine development. The aim behind this global collaboration is that even poorer nations can benefit from the research and treatment. About the funding raised European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement, “Today the world showed extraordinary unity for the common good. Governments and global health organisations joined forces against coronavirus. With such commitment, we are on track for developing, producing and deploying a vaccine for all. However, this is only the beginning. We need to sustain the effort and to stand ready to contribute more. The pledging marathon will continue. After governments, civil society and people worldwide need to join in, in a global mobilisation of hope and resolve.”
Being in lockdown mode is not a viable solution and the world awaits a cure against this deadly pandemic. All eyes are now on the company that manages to develop the vaccine.
A successfully developed vaccine will not only be a source of great profits but also be a matter of great pride for whichever country that develops it.
* The cost to vaccinate the global population against Covid-19 likely to exceed $ 20 Billion
* Global alliance pledge $8 Billion against the coronavirus fight
* Over 200,000 Covid-19 deaths worldwide
* Over 4 Million positive cases worldwide