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The Jab The World Awaits

The race to create a vaccine is on – the country that gets there first stands to gain in more ways than one By Jyotsna Sharma

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The global economy is in doldrums, people and places are in a lockdown, borders have been closed, trade has ground to a standstill. All thanks to the coronavirus. The upshot: global economic growth for 2020 is seen tumbling to 2.4 per cent. That’s the minimum damage that Covid-19 would inflict on the world. To limit any further harm, what’s needed is not more lockdowns but a vaccine that can defang the virulent virus and help put life back on track. And that’s precisely what a number of countries are currently engaged in a race to find. As a result, numerous drugs are being tested the world over, and everyday there are reports of progress being made on the vaccine front. 

Big Claims 

Italy apparently was the first off the block with a claim to have successfully developed a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus. Researchers at the Rome-based Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases claimed to have generated antibodies in mice after injecting them with a vaccine developed by Rome-based Takis Biotech. The vaccine, they said, would work effectively on humans. A report quoted Takis Biotech’s CEO Luigi Aurisicchio as saying that human tests are expected after summer. 

Israel too claims to have developed an antibody against Covid-19. Praising scientists of the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) for their successful endeavour, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett in a statement said, “I am proud of the institute staff for this terrific breakthrough. Their creativity and the Jewish mind brought about this amazing achievement.” In fact, the development process is over and the institute would be starting the process of patenting and producing it on a large scale, the minister informed. However, there is no clarity if human trails have been conducted. 

Efforts to develop a vaccine in the US and UK came to light when the two countries recently issued a joint advisory stating that cyber criminals and hackers were targeting Covid-19 vaccine research and other sensitive health research data, which in the current environment would be extremely valuable. It is understood that medical research organisations, universities and pharmaceutical companies are being targeted. China, Russia and Iran are believed to be the countries that are engaging in this cyber espionage. England’s University of Oxford, which is on the brink of developing a vaccine, reportedly had a hacking scare though there have been no reports of any successful breach or data theft. 

In the US, Pfizer and BioNTech have reportedly 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. 

Oxford university in collaboration with Serum Institute of India is working on a vaccine that is undergoing clinical trials and is slated to hit the market by September. In fact, Serum Institute has begun manufacturing the vaccine even before the trials are over so that once approved the antidote is available on a large scale. “We’ll start manufacturing at 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.

Another Indian player in the vaccine fray is Bengaluru-headquartered Biocon. Chairperson and Managing Director Kiran Mazumdar Shaw says the vaccine her company is working on will likely be ready for clinical trials in the next nine months or so. 

China, where the virus first surfaced, claims that a vaccine they tested on monkeys successfully created antibodies against the novel coronavirus. Clinical trials for PicoVacc, the vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech, will start later this year. 

Taking the Short Cut 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 120 vaccines have been proposed worldwide and they are tracking the progress made on them. In fact, the WHO has encouraged and facilitated exchange of results and collaboration between developers and researchers, which would help in the 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. From studying the virus to getting funding and necessary approvals is a time-consuming process. The question therefore is: how have so many companies managed to shorten the time required to produce the vaccine? Apparently, scientists in these companies 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 up the whole process. They point to the fact that under normal circumstances, where companies are required to follow regular timelines, only a small number of vaccines eventually get approved.  Therefore, it is prudent to stick to the process mandated. 

Says 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 have the medical research community, governments, pharma industry and philanthropic organisations of the entire world come together for a common cause.” He adds: “Governments across the globe have pledged billions of dollars; nations have compressed vaccine development timelines by expediting approval processes; many countries are collaborating on research and development; pharmaceutical firms and philanthropic organisations 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,” says Sehgal.

While the research on a vaccine is taking place at breakneck speed, a contrarian voice has emerged in Dr David Nabarro, special envoy to the World Health Organisation on Covid-19. In a recent interview to a television network, Nabarro talked of a likelihood of a vaccine never being successfully developed. “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,” he said.

It’s Raining Funds

Governments / states, businesses and even corporate leaders are pledging funds for efforts being made to fight the deadly virus. Billionaire philanthropist couple Bill and Melinda Gates are contributing their might for 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 in May, responding to the WHO’s call for global collaboration in the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak, an alliance of world leaders pledged $8 billion for the cause. France, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Norway, Japan and Saudi Arabia were some of the countries that were part of this alliance. The US 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. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement said, “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.” He added: “However, this is only the beginning. We need to sustain the effort and 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 successful vaccine will not only be a source of great profits but also be a matter of great pride for the country and the organisation that develops it.   

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