Billions are injected into developing a Covid-19 vaccine – here’s hoping NZ can secure a supply when it is produced

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.

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