By Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell
While proper hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, social distancing, testing, and therapeutics are all valid and useful measures in the battle against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a safe, effective vaccine is the only path to normal. It is the ultimate game-changer. As one reader recently wrote to The Buffalo News, “Without a COVID-19 vaccine, there is no Hollywood ending.”
It certainly won’t be easy. In general, over 90% of vaccine candidates fail, and vaccines usually take several years, not months, to develop. Despite 33 attempts at a vaccine for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which spread worldwide in a few months from China in 2002, no SARS vaccine exists today.
Similarly, for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which started in Jordan in April 2012 and spread to a total of 27 countries, all 13 vaccine candidates to date have failed.
As of this writing, the novel coronavirus has infected 5.6 million persons and caused some 350 thousand deaths across over 200 countries. It is highly transmissible—spread by even asymptomatic individuals—and it is “wily,” as it has mutated over a dozen times. In short, it constitutes an epochal challenge for all of humankind.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic about the chances for successful development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
First, we’re taking many more swings at the plate. Over 80 pharmaceutical and biotech companies, along with several universities and research institutes, are in the hunt. According to the World Health Organization, as of May 27, there are 125 vaccine candidates in the development pipeline.
Second, the public sector is partnering with the developers, with over 40 governments—especially the United States’ federal government—subsidizing the development efforts with unheard-of levels of funding.
Third, across the more than 100 vaccine candidates, five vaccine platforms—strategic approaches, tools or techniques—are being employed. The vaccine platforms are live-attenuated vaccines, inactivated vaccines, viral vector-based vaccines, subunit vaccines, and RNA and DNA vaccines. All except the RNA and DNA vaccines are proven approaches that have generated successful vaccines for other viruses.
And fourth, lessons learned from the efforts to produce vaccines for SARS and MERS are being leveraged, and significant knowledge sharing is taking place thru a consortium of more than 400 scientists involved in COVID-19 vaccine development and diagnostics.
In addition, there are reasons to be optimistic about the timing of a COVID-19 vaccine. Some of the developers are combining clinical trial phases, e.g., conducting phases 1 and 2 at the same time. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom are closely monitoring the development of vaccines in their respective countries and employing “fast-track” approval processes.
Of course, a COVID-19 vaccine deemed safe and effective does no good if it cannot be distributed to literally billions of people. To that end, the developers of several of the leading vaccine candidates are lining up multiple pharmaceutical companies as manufacturing partners, and some of them are already building factories and even manufacturing vaccines before the vaccines have been approved.
In Hollywood movies, existential threats against humanity—such as a massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth or extraterrestrials invading our planet—are met with a unified response by the world. Such a time is this, as the best and the brightest from nations across globe are on a noble quest to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. My money’s on them.