Yes, Minister, we are finding it difficult – but the race to produce a vaccine helps cheer us

The  doomsters  are in  full cry  again.  A  rolling  maul  of  lockdowns  looms, businesses  will be  closing down,  jobless  numbers  will rise  exponentially.  We’re   becoming tetchy  under the  stresses  of the  Covid-19  pandemic,  and those  who have been working round  the clock  on  testing  are  becoming  exhausted.  It feels as if  2020  has been  going  on  too long   already.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins  in a  classic  bit of  understatement says:

People  have found it  very  difficult these past few weeks”.

News  from  Hong Kong  of  the  first  reinfection  deepens  anxiety.  Nations  are  queuing  up for    a vaccine against the virus  but  authorities  like WHO  warn it  could  be two  years  before  a fully  tested  vaccine becomes  available globally.

In  the  prevailing  atmosphere  where  the doomsters  dominate  the headlines,  Point of  Order  has been searching for something  positive.

Possibly   the best new is  that in the few months since  the pandemic  began, several  strong vaccine candidates have made  it to final stage clinical trials.  Thousands of dedicated scientists  and  medics  are  working to produce  a vaccine faster  than any other in history.

If  they  succeed,  each  candidate   will then  require  regulatory  approval.

In the UK  the  most advanced work  has been  done  on a  vaccine  candidate,  known as ChAdOx1,    by  Oxford  University scientists in partnership  with AstraZeneca.

The ChAdOx1 vaccine is   being tested in phase 3 clinical trials with more than 10,000 people from across the UK, including children and the elderly.  The vaccine is also being tested in Brazil and South Africa.

With support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), AstraZeneca will manufacture 300m doses of this coronavirus vaccine candidate in anticipation of the vaccine proving to be both safe and effective.  If it is, the first doses are expected to be available in late 2020.

The Australian government  is  reported to have placed  orders  for  this  vaccine candidate

Nine candidate vaccines are being supported by CEPI, seven of which are in clinical trials. Governments, vaccine manufacturers (in addition to their own R&D), organisations and individuals have committed $US1.4bn towards vaccine R&D so far.

In the   US,  the  Cambridge  (Massachusetts)  company Moderna  has  developed  a  vaccine  candidate which has  been  tested in phase 1 trials on volunteers in Seattle. Moderna has run phase 2 trials on participants of a wide range of ages and started phase 3 trials in July.

The  company was able to develop the vaccine at lightning speed in part because, unlike most existing vaccines, they aren’t using a weakened or killed version of the virus – they are using messenger RNA (or mRNA) based on the genetic code for the virus that Chinese researchers sequenced and made freely available.

The theory is that the artificial mRNA will act as an instruction book, telling human cells to build a protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), which should trigger an immune response to the virus.

Another reason this vaccine had been made so rapidly is that Moderna researchers were already were working on a vaccine for a previous coronavirus MERS-CoV, which targets the spike that coronaviruses have on their surface.

The  German   company   BioNTech, working together with Pfizer, started testing its BNT162 vaccine in humans in global trials initially in Germany and recently started trials in the USA. BiotNTech has also entered into a €100 million debt financing agreement with the European Investment Bank to scale-up the production of the vaccine in Europe.

On 27 July, it announced the launch of a phase 2/3 trial with 30,000 volunteers in the United States and other countries including Argentina, Brazil, and Germany.

Another  German  company, Curevac’s  vaccine candidate  is    based on an RNA platform.  It has received € 300 million backing from the German government, €80 million from the European Commission and €8.3 million from the CEPI. The two-dose vaccine will be tested in 168 healthy individuals between the ages of 18 and 60.

Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also made a commitment to invest $US52m in CureVac to support its platform technology and the construction of a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) production facility

Researchers at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, are using a patented vaccine-development technique called a ‘molecular clamp’. They first create a synthetic version of the characteristic ‘spike’ protein that covers the virus, as this can trigger an immune response in the human body. They then attach a ‘clamp’ onto this synthetic protein to ensure it remains stable enough to trigger antibodies (the protein would normally denature in the human body).

The  big  Australian  company CSL  is working  with the Queensland  University  on the project.

In the US Novavax is using a nanoparticle technology platform to generate antigens from the protein found on the spikey outer shell of the coronavirus. The company has started testing on people and was  due  to get preliminary data in July. The vaccine also received the highest funding from CEPI with a total of $US388m.

Johnson and  Johnson has developed vaccines for Ebola and other diseases with Recombinant Adenovirus Serotype 26 (Ad26) and has now made one for the coronavirus. It launched phase 1/2 trials in July, with hopes of making up to a billion doses in 2021.

US-based  Inovio put its INO-4800 DNA vaccine into human trials early in April. So far, it’s the only company with a phase 2 vaccine against the related MERS-CoV coronavirus. The company plans to start human clinical trials in the USA, and shortly after in China and South Korea.

Other  countries   working  on  Covid-19  vaccines  include  China,  Japan and India.  And, of  course,  Russia  already  claims  to  have one   for  immediate  injection.   Good luck  with that.

Point of  Order  leaves  the  last  word  with a  British scientist:  “I will be  extremely  surprised  if we never develop an effective vaccine”.

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