Is a Coronavirus Vaccine Around the Corner? How Long Must We Wait?

Vaccine development is a long process & it’ll be many months or maybe even a year or two before it’s available.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
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Reports of an Israeli research institute developing a vaccine against the coronavirus (CoVID-19) have recently emerged. As per the report, the Israeli Prime Minister, under whose direction this laboratory works, instructed the institute to begin work on the vaccine on 1 February, and viral samples from Italy, Japan and other countries were sent to Israel, to finalise the design for the vaccine.

While this news sounds great, the reality of the matter is that the vaccine development is a long process, and it will be many months or maybe even an year or two before the vaccine can be made available to people, that is, if it passes multiple tests of being effective.

Protocol For Vaccine Approval

Unlike the days of Edward Jenner, who got away with jabbing poor James Phipps with contents from a smallpox pustule, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has a strict protocol for a vaccine to be approved. Clinical development goes through three phases, Phase I consisting of tens of patients, Phase II consists of hundreds of patients, and Phase III consists of thousands of patients being inoculated with prototype vaccine and testing if it confers immunity.

During all three phases, the side-effects of the vaccine are monitored, and the benefits of the vaccine must outweigh the side-effects for the vaccine to be approved.

All this will definitely take months, if not years before the vaccine is approved by the CDC and its counterparts around the world. The question is, whether the world would be interested in the vaccine 12 or 18 months from now.

This is not the first time that something like the coronavirus has hit humankind.

The year was 2003 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the name of the outbreak. Known as SARS-CoV, the disease spread from Guangdong province in China, infected people, exhibited similar symptoms such as dry cough and fever, and spread to others during the second week of illness through respiratory excretions. Close to 800 people died in 26 countries. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) is the name that World Health Organization (WHO) has given to the disease that is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 that has spread to 126 countries and caused more than 5000 deaths.

Why Don’t We Have a Vaccine for SARS-CoV Yet?

So, how come we do not have a vaccine for SARS-CoV? According to a NBC Report, Dr Peter Hoetz and his team at the Centre for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital managed to develop a vaccine for the SARS-CoV, but the year was 2016, and nobody was interested in a vaccine for a disease that had come and gone over a decade ago.

The spread of SARS had waned by the end of 2004, and even the MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome related Coronavirus) of 2012, which claimed 600 lives, was not enough to pique funding interest for testing of the vaccine.

This is in spite of the SARS virus being on the high priority list of diseases that were recommended for vaccine development by WHO. Dr Hoetz is still seeking a relatively small funding of USD 3 million to test his vaccine prototype, and investment is still not available for the testing phase. If the disease wanes and does not come back in the winter of 2020, it would be a rather dead investment.

But this skepticism seems selective. Big pharma companies are working around the clock to prepare a vaccine, while some lesser known names betting on their patented technologies to come up with either vaccines or treatments for COVID-19.

Vaccines, Treatments Underway For Infectious Diseases

Gilead Sciences’s Remdesivir, a potential treatment against viral pneumonia and Ebola, is now in Phase 3 of development, and might be the first to graduate as a drug against coronavirus. GlaxoSmithKline AS03 adjuvant system for seasonal flu and Papillomavirus vaccines, can be used to develop a vaccine. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which develops monoclonal antibodies-based treatments suggests that its treatment for coronavirus might be ready as early as August this year.

Vir Biotechnology Inc, uses similar technology as Regeneron, and is collaborating with China-based WuXi Biologics to test its treatment in China.

Moderna Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, and CureVac, a Germany-based company, leverage mRNA sequences to make proteins in your own cells, paving the way to just make the outer membrane of the virus sufficient for the body to launch an immune response without the infection. Both the products are in pre-clinical development and might be fast-tracked through Phases 1-3 to deliver vaccines in the next 18 months.

Following these announcements, the share prices of these companies have jumped up:

Gilead: 17.6 percent
Moderna: 45.7 percent
Regeneron: 27 percent
Vir Biotechnology: 279 percent

Research & Development Must Continue

Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world, has collaborated with US-based Codagenix, to develop the vaccine by 2022 in a project worth 300 crores. Innovio Pharmaceuticals, a four decade old company without a single product that has made it to the market recently raised USD 208 million on the promise of making a Coronavirus vaccine.

So, while Dr Hoetz’s vaccine seems to have no takers, plenty money seems available to some others. Companies are clearly milking this opportunity to showcase the promise of their patented technologies and attract media and investor attention, when healthcare workers on the ground are pretty defenceless.

The real intent of the companies will only be known if these projects really go through the three phases, irrespective of the status of the spread of the virus.

Investments for vaccine developments run dry as soon as the initial panic wears off and return on investment calculations look weak. Sustained funding from government and non-government organisations needs to continue even during lean periods. Mers, Ebola, Nipah, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, the list of contagious diseases in recent times is a good indication that in the connected world we live in, our risks are also high – and stepping off the research and development pedal is not an option.

(A molecular biologist by day and a blogger by night, Ameya Paleja writes about genetics, microbes and the future of technology at Coffee Table Science.  Scientific research and policy making are also areas of his interest. You can tweet to him at @ameyapaleja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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