When Will We Get The COVID-19 Vaccine?
Remember the movie “Contagion” that released in 2011? In the movie, the entire world got contaminated by a certain virus, and around 25 million people died from the virus. The movie depicted how scientists were fighting tooth and nail to discover a vaccine for the virus, and only after 133 days were they able to produce it.
That was in the reel world. In the real world however, even after 133 days scientists are not even close to producing a vaccine. Hardly ever before in modern history, has there been a more desperate search for some vaccine. More than hundred different possibilities has been explored and tested.
Countries, governments, pharmaceuticals and scientists have all kept their nose in the grindstone. The time required for the development of this vaccine is speculated to be around 12–18 months.
But why does it take so long to produce a vaccine?
The vaccine process.
Vaccines usually take 10 to 15 years to be developed and that too when the project goes according to the desired plan from start to end. Scientists have been trying to discover a cure for HIV for almost 40 years now and it’s vaccine is only expected to be produced around 2030, that is 50 years after the initial outbreak of the disease! Fastest ever vaccine produced was for mumps, it was developed in 5 years.
To understand better why does it take this long for the development of a vaccine we must take a look at all the stages involved in the process.
At this point of time, we have got more that 113 vaccine candidates but that doesn’t mean we will get a vaccine for all the 113 candidates because many of these candidates won’t be successful. Think of this like a full body fitness test where 113 candidates have participated. They will each have to go through multiple tests and some of them just might not make the cut.
The first stage of the vaccine development process is the research stage in which scientists must secure funding and approvals. Usually this phase takes around two years, but these aren’t the usual times. Scientists in China had published the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 on 12th January, less than a week after they had isolated the bug from a patient suffering from a mysterious respiratory disease.
By late January, many scientists had already started using this genetic sequence and began working on it. Scientists were also aided with results of previous researchs which had been done at the time of the SARS(2003) and MERS(2012) outbreak, because the SARS and Covid-19 virus, sharing nearly 80 percent identity at the nucleotide level.
This is the reason why scientists have completed the research stage in a matter of months rather than the usual two years time.
The second stage is the trial stage, which has three phases. It usually requires a time of 4 years to be completed. But in the case of Covid-19, they’ll need to be done with it in much less than that.
The first phase consists of animal testing and small scale human trials. Testings are initially done on small animals and lab rats and then it is followed by trials on human beings at small scale .
The second phase is for medium scale human trials where the vaccine is tested on human beings at medium scales and it is observed whether their immune system responds by producing antibodies.
In the third phase, human trials take place at a large scale. Scientists make two groups of people, one of the groups is given the vaccine and other is not. After some time scientists compare the infection rate in the two groups to determine whether the vaccine is actually effective or not.
Best case scenario: By September 2020, we’ll have a vaccine for the coronavirus. But some researchers also say that it’s not possible before 2021 unless they’re lucky.
After passing through the two stages, we’ll have a vaccine that would be effective against the Covid-19 virus. Which brings us to the third stage, production. The next logical step is manufacturing it at an extreme pace. This would be even more challenging.
When a factory is set up, the machines, computers and all other components, are calibrated for a specific product and that is why we won’t be able to use the already established factories, which are producing other vaccines, for the production of Covid-19 vaccine. Setting up such factories can take up to 5 years. Fortunately, some powerful personalities like Bill and Melinda Gates are helping towards minimizing that time.
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have undertaken a project to set up factories for production of vaccines against seven different viruses. That means if a virus passes through the first two stages at least there will factories available to start their production immediately.
However, the problem doesn’t end there. Even if we have factories already set up, we’d need to produce the vaccine in such enormous amounts as we’d have never seen before and that is not going to be easy. Now, one may argue, we readily produce various products like chocolates, TVs, cameras,etc., at a rapid rate, so why would it be so tough to produce vaccines?
The answer is, vaccine production requires very specialized equipments which would be high on demand once the productions start. For example, vaccines are stored in special vials, which are not made from ordinary glass. They are made from a special kind of glass, so that they don’t get damaged at different temperatures and pressures and also during the transportation processes. Currently, we do not have enough vials to store such amount of vaccines.
After production, comes the fourth stage, distribution. For which not only will we need trucks and other means of transport but also, syringes, cotton, band-aids, etc. But before that, the government will have to face a big dilemma. Suppose a country receives a batch of 10,000 vaccines. Now who are to get those vaccines, the old aged, who are showing a higher rate of mortality to this disease? Or the children, who have comparably weaker immune system and are more susceptible? Or the people who have a higher chance of exposure to the virus, like delivery men?
In the movie, people were given the vaccine through a lottery system on the basis of their birth dates.
The process gets even more complicated further down the road. If a particular state in a country produces the vaccine, will the government let that particular state have the vaccine first or will it employ a more centralized approach to distribute the vaccine equally among states?
Speed vs Safety
A professor from the Yale’s University has said that “If we do it the conventional way, there’s no way we’re going to reach that 18 months deadline”. That’s why many companies are pushing the boundaries of innovation such as, Vaxart is trying to develop a vaccine that can be orally administered. Similarly, Germany’s CureVax is in attempts to produce a low-dose vaccine which can be manufactured easily.
But to meet our objectives, at some point, we will have to compromise between safety and speed. Both ends of the spectrum cost human lives.
Traditionally, vaccines have a small dosage of a weakened variety of the virus. In the 1950s, a polio vaccine was developed which was approved within hours. However, the virus in that vaccine was relatively not weak enough and the patients who were given that vaccine actually developed poliomyelitis in them, due to which 11 children lost their lives.
In 2015, a French drug company Sanofi introduce a dengue vaccine, many experts believed that testing had not been done properly. In Phillipines, it was found that the condition of childrens worsened after taking dosages of the vaccine.
Globalization vs Nationalism
This virus has forced many companies to work together in aspects we’d have never imagined. Many companies are sharing research data about their failed candidates so that they don’t have to repeat the same research.
The story isn’t the same between different governments however. Many believe that rich countries like the US and the European Nations may outbid other countries and gain access to vaccine first. This isn’t just a hypothesis by the way, this behaviour was observed by the richer countries to gain access to PPEs.
- European countries and WHO are trying to keep the multilateral options alive with a series of fundraising summits. But the US, India, Brazil and Argentina stayed away from this meeting. President Trump had even threatened to permanently cut off the funding of WHO.
- Furthermore, US and China are in nothing less than a virtual race to produce the vaccine, since now it has become a matter of prestige. Something very similar to this had happened in the past when during the cold war the US and the Soviet Union were involved in a “Space-race” to see who can send a man on the moon first.
- Chinese PM, Xi Jinping had hinted that China would be willing to share the vaccine with the world once it’s available. This might be a smart move to recover China’s international reputation. But the success of this is dependent on the discovery of a vaccine which is quite uncertain at the moment.
- Last month Germany had accused the US of confiscating masks, which were meant for Europe, in Bangkok and diverting then it to the US.
- US accused China of trying to hack vaccine data through cyber attacks.
In 2009, many rich countries signed pre-purchase agreements with vaccine suppliers during the H1N1 influenza pandemic to get their hands on the vaccine first. But what will be the scenario in the case of Covid-19, where the scale of the disease is extremely high? What if the US funds a French company to produce the vaccine which is researching in India? Which country will get access first then?
To come up with a solution to such problems the governments of different countries must co-operate and come up with policies and agreements.
Fortunately for India, it looks like the odds are in favour. 60 % to 70% of the world’s vaccines are manufactured in India. Serum institute, an Indian company, is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. They have signed agreements with four different vaccine developers. The company’s CEO has also said, India will be the first to get access to their vaccines. Moreover, India has maintained good relationship with the US. Even though the US president Donald Trump is very unpredictable with his behaviour, in current times relationship like these can prove to be fruitful for the future.
Now vaccines are not the only solution to this crisis. As we have learned from the history of HIV, antiviral drugs can curb down death rate and transmission rate exponentially. But for our world to revert back to normal conditions vaccines is a prime necessity. Also we don’t know if the Covid-19 vaccine will give us lifelong immunity, like in the case of small pox, or only for a year or two, like in the case of other coronaviruses.
To fight and fend off the Covid-19 we need two basic weapons in our arsenal. First is luck and the second is cooperation. The first one is not under our control but we can control the second. In the movie “Contagion”, the world lost 25 million lives before they came up with a vaccine. To evade this possibility in reality, governments have to co-operate with each other.