Where is the vaccine? The multi-billion-dollar question

The production lines are ready. The companies are estimating the numbers they need to produce as Corona vaccine. Billions of dollars are being pumped in, new factories are being set up, but the vaccine is nowhere in sight.  A vaccine is currently the best bet to end the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, which has caused a pandemic across the world.

There are as many as seven companies trying to produce a vaccine to combat Corona (see the graphics). But the fact remains that after 1961 the world has not produced a vaccine. We are yet to find a vaccine for HIV, a disease discovered in the early 1980s and all the subsequent pandemics, be it SARS, Zica,Ebola and so on and so forth. Now Corona is testing the health community and scientists alike to find a cure for this pandemic.So where do we stand today(at the time of going to print)?

Two contending thoughts

Global population in its fight against the virus has become a ‘holy grail’. There are two thoughts within the scientific community. The first is that the threat posed by the pandemic will die down if the human population develops immunity to Covid-19. How does humanity acquire immunity? It can be acquired naturally or through vaccination. The first alternative is dangerous because that requires a huge chunk of world population to get infected.   The second option is more scientific against this fast spreading virus and raises hope. We need to keep in mind that science has developed over the years and it’s our best be yet. Within months of the outbreak scientists across the world have launched projects to identify and develop vaccines to halt the march of the virus. If we look at World Health Organisation global database of research into novel coronavirus there are seven vaccine candidates being tried on humans. Let’s took a look at the efforts being made globally and in India too. Globally seven companies have entered human trials stage for corona vaccine. In India, too, six firms are in different stages of pre-clinical vaccine development. We need to keep in mind that vaccine research is a long process. It involves three stages of trials that include clinical and human trials. The number of people being injected increases and it requires an in-depth study of testing for safety, side-effects and whether it is able to induce immunity. Time could mean decades. There is also a fear that the scientists are forced to take ‘shortcuts’ to develop the vaccine but science does not endorse that.

No certainty of atime limit

These are yet initial days in the development of a vaccine.If we look at the time line of companies making predictions to achieve a vaccine it ranges from four months to a year and half. Most of the corona vaccine being developed at the moment is trying to target the spikes located on the surface of the virus.   The virus uses these spikes, which are made of protein, to latch on to human cells. Vaccines currently being developed hope to disable these spikes and render the novel coronavirus incapable of causing an infection.

WHO has listed about eighty others apart from the seven mentioned in the list. These are various pharma companies which are in differentstages of clinical trials.The landscape of Covid 19 is changing very fast also because of its mutation making it tough to come up with a vaccine. The other challenge is that the development of a vaccine goes through many stages. First it involves animal trials and at least three phases of human trials. The danger that we are confronted with is that scientists are trying to take a different route. They have accelerated route that is skipping stages and are combining various phases of research. This is fraught with a risk and something full of further problems.It could well mean that a vaccine is available in some record time but experts are sceptical. And what does record time look like; experts and health practitioners are not looking at anything less than a year and half. Remember we are still struggling for HIV vaccine.

Two most prominent research development

Israeli Defence Minister claimed that scientists have made ‘significant breakthrough’  and that ‘Israel’s secret lab isolated Coronavirus antibodies’. The Minister, Naftali Bennett claimed saying “I am proud of the Biological Institute staff, who have made a major breakthrough”. “The Jewish creativity and ingenuity brought about this amazing achievement”.His statement was released after he visited the labs of the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), a secretive unit that works under the Prime Minister’s Office. The scientists there told him that the development phase of the vaccine has been completed.We need to understand that antibodies in the samples tested are immune-system proteins that are residues of successfully overcoming the coronavirus. These are widely seen as a key to developing a possible cure. Another Israeli team has claimed that ‘it is close to completing the first phase of development of a coronavirus vaccine’.  It has already secured a US $12 million investment to accelerate the path to clinical trials.IIBR Director Shmuel Shapira said that the antibody formula was being patented, after which an international manufacturer would be sought to mass-produce it.The IIBR has been leading Israeli efforts to develop a treatment and vaccine for the coronavirus, including the testing of blood from those who recovered from Covid-19.

The second research, and a prominent one, is happening at the University of Oxford. Here the researchers have started testing the vaccine. It has raised most hopes.In a statement, the University of Oxford said: “ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 is made from a virus (ChAdOx1), which is a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus) that causes infections in chimpanzees, that has been genetically changed so that it is impossible for it to grow in humans. Genetic material has been added to the ChAdOx1 construct, that is used to make proteins from the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) called Spike glycoprotein (S). This protein is usually found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 and plays an essential role in the infection pathway of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses its spike protein to bind to ACE2 receptors on human cells to gain entry to the cells and cause an infection.”

Indian connection must not be forgotten

As India is fighting the battle along with the world, its connection to find a vaccine must be noted. The Serum Institute of India, one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world, has partnered with various pharma companies of the world in production of the vaccine. It is a leading partner in trials along with University of Oxford. In a statement, the company said: “SII will be manufacturing the vaccine in anticipation of clinical trials succeeding by September-October in the UK. The vaccine will not be made available to the public in two-three weeks, as suggested in some media reports. Following that, SII has undertaken the decision to initiate the manufacture at their own risk. The decision has been solely taken to have a jump start on manufacturing, to have enough doses available, if the clinical trials work.”

Where have the trials reached?

For the first time in history the vaccine leapt straight to human trials for testing of efficacy. There were no animal trials. The reason being given is that the safety had already been proven earlier, when it was being developed as an option against MERS.

For the trial, 1,102 participants will be enrolled across Oxford, Southampton, London and Bristol. They will be split into the vaccine arm and the control arm; the control will not be a placebo as is usually done, but another vaccine. This will be MenACWY, a vaccine licenced for use against a common bacteria that causes meningitis and sepsis. Discussion with many experts and medical practitioners does not suggest that we are anywhere near a vaccine. The world is yet to find vaccine for HIV; let’s hope we get to see the day when we will have a vaccine against Coronavirus.

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