New Zealanders are still reeling from the shock they didn’t succeed in suppressing Covid-19, let alone eliminate it. Having convinced themselves after 100 days without community transmission that economic recovery, too, was moving ahead, the stern reality is the country faces new challenges.
These challenges may not be overcome until a vaccine becomes available. But news that Vladimir Putin claims Russia is the first nation to produce an effective vaccine should not inspire confidence of such a vaccine becoming available any times soon.
The problem is that whenever a safe and effective vaccine is on the global market, NZ may well be far down the queue to receive it. This may compound the economic hardship for NZ, as we will be late back into the international tourism market.
It is true – as London’s The Economist spelled out last week – that in the face of the Covid-19 catastrophe scientists look likely to produce a vaccine much faster than almost anyone could have predicted at the start of the pandemic.
But as The Economist further says, global efforts to manufacture and distribute vaccines do not measure up.
“A mere $US10bn or so have been devoted to the cause…The figures are murky but on a rough estimate the world has bought about 4bn doses of Covid-19 vaccines for delivery by the end of next year which is enough to give half the planet one dose. In practice, however, far fewer people will secure protection from the disease.”
Some of the vaccines in production will fail to get regulatory approval, and a potential candidate that reaches a large-scale clinical trial—as several have—still has a 20% chance of failure. Some may not be suited to the elderly, for instance, or they may stop people from dying from Covid-19 but not from passing it on to others. Others will require more than one dose to be effective.
“Because of these contingencies, even those countries, such as Britain and America, that have bought more than two doses for each of their citizens have still not bought enough.”
The Economist in its editorial goes on to argue that instead of seeing unproven vaccines as an extravagance, the world needs to think of them as an insurance policy. Research suggests if ten or more vaccines are in development, there is a 90% chance of finding one that works.
“But it is impossible to know in advance which candidate will succeed”.
The journal then reaches the nub of its argument: Governments should help pharmaceutical firms produce vast quantities of a range of vaccines long before regulatory approval is granted. Even boosting vaccine funding ten-fold to $100bn or more pales in comparison with the $7trn which governments across the world have spent or pledged since the pandemic began to preserve incomes and jobs.
As Point of Order sees it, political parties in NZ, instead of squabbling over border controls and the operation of quarantine, should be competing more vigorously on how they would negotiate with pharmaceutical firms and other governments to get access to supplies of vaccines, perhaps even allocating some of that $60bn the budget earmarked for the consequences of the pandemic.
Across the Tasman the big Melbourne firm CSL is working with the University of Queensland on the development of UQ’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate. Shouldn’t the NZ government be negotiating with CSL, perhaps through a licensing arrangement, to get access to that vaccine if it measures up in clinical trials?
In the UK the vaccine candidate developed by the University of Oxford began a clinical trial with more than 500 participants in late April. Oxford officials said the potential vaccine has an 80% chance for success and could be available as early as September. This vaccine uses a modified virus to trigger the immune system.
The university has partnered with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has begun a late-stage clinical trial. If the clinical trial is successful, they could deliver 30m doses by September.
Perhaps NZ should place an order now?
Pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi are both working on their own vaccines. Johnson & Johnson said in late July that it had begun early-stage human trials after their vaccine had shown promising results when used in monkeys.
Pfizer has teamed up with German biotech company BioNTech to develop a vaccine. In early July, Pfizer said that the vaccine produced an immune response in people during an early-stage clinical trial – but the vaccine did cause side effects such as fever at higher doses.
In the US, the big pharmaceutical firm Moderna in March began testing its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine in a phase 1 clinical trial in Seattle. In mid-May, the company said the vaccine had produced antibodies in all 45 trial participants in this initial clinical phase.
The company has developed other mRNA vaccines before. Those earlier studies showed their platform is safe, which allowed the company to skip certain animal testing for this specific vaccine.
In early May, the company received permission from the FDA to start a phase II study of its vaccine. The FDA also agreed to fast-track regulatory review of this vaccine if it succeeds in a phase III clinical trial. In late July, Moderna finished the phase II trials and began the phase-III trial of their vaccine
Scientists at CanSino Biologics in China are also working on a potential vaccine. In late July, they said that participants in a phase II trial showed a strong immune response when given the vaccine. However, they noted older adults had a weaker response, suggesting two doses might be needed for that segment of the population.
Advances in genetic sequencing and other technological developments have sped up some of the earlier laboratory work for vaccine development.
Let’s hope NZ doesn’t fall too far behind in getting access to any of the vaccines that prove successful.