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Working Together to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine

Working Together to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine

Monday, 2 March, 2020 - 09:30
Richard Hatchett
The CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

The novel coronavirus outbreak has entered a new phase with person-to-person transmission now occurring in multiple countries, setting off economic alarm bells around the globe and underscoring the growing risk posed by epidemics in our modern, hyper-connected world.

Stopping disease spread altogether using isolation and quarantine is going to be extremely difficult, although the precautions being taken by governments – including those in the Gulf – can slow it down and will buy valuable time.

The most powerful tool we can bring to bear, however, is a vaccine – and we need to invest now to make it a reality. Vaccines are the one weapon that can stop an infectious disease dead in its tracks.

Even after more than 80,000 cases and 2,700 deaths, mostly in China, there are still many things we do not know about the virus that causes COVID-19. These include the number of people an average infected person goes on to infect, its fatality rate and whether it will exhibit a seasonal pattern, like flu, and die down in the summer months.

But some things are clear: this virus is extremely challenging to contain, it poses a major health risk and if it persists as an ongoing, or endemic, human disease, a vaccine will be all the more crucial.

Because the virus was previously completely unknown – it is just the kind of mystery “Disease X” that health experts have long feared – there are no existing products to treat it or prevent its spread.

Making a vaccine against such an enemy is a formidable task, but we have already moved with unprecedented speed. The effort has been helped by the presence of my organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which was set up in 2017 after West Africa’s deadly Ebola epidemic in 2014-15, to accelerate work on vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. It is a pooled resource for the world against epidemics that do not respect borders, bringing together public, private, philanthropic and civil society organisations.

Typically, a new vaccine takes years – sometimes decades – to develop. However, under a programme that we are funding, biotech company Moderna has already shipped vials of test vaccine to the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), just 42 days after the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus was identified. This record-breaking timetable puts us on track to hit our target of having a vaccine against a previously unknown pathogen ready to test in humans within 16 weeks.

Of course, this is only the start. Even if the vaccine performs as well as hoped, it could take around a year and a half to complete trials and scale up production.

In the current crisis, health experts in the private and public sectors are working as hard and as fast as they can on multiple fronts. CEPI is also supporting work on other COVID-19 vaccines (University of Queensland, Inovio and CureVac) and is collaborating with GSK, the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer. GSK will make available its pandemic adjuvant technology - an adjuvant is a special ingredient that is added to some vaccines to boost the immune response and effectively makes a given supply of vaccine go farther.

We are learning fast and the lessons from research carried out in “peace time” between epidemics is proving vital in fast-tracking work during this emergency. Moderna’s vaccine, for example, builds on experience gained with experimental ones against similar coronaviruses responsible for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

We are also funding work at universities and biotech firms into new “plug-and-play” vaccine technology platforms. These use standard components as a backbone but can be adapted to fight specific diseases by plugging in different genetic sequences.

Developing new vaccines is not cheap, but the cost we estimate will be needed to advance vaccine candidates through to large-scale clinical trials is a drop in the ocean compared to the economic damage caused by COVID-19. History shows that even small epidemics can have a major economic impact – and the current outbreak is not small. We are already seeing a devastating impact on global trade, travel, working patterns and supply chains. The fallout is reflected in cuts to GDP forecasts and a slump in stock markets.

Today’s world allows pathogens to spread at the speed of a jet plane and the risk of major disease outbreaks is unfortunately increasing. Over the past few years, we have seen a string of outbreaks, including Ebola, Lassa fever, SARS, MERS, Zika and Nipah. But we can prepare. Governments, corporations and civil society must come together now to invest in the vaccines of tomorrow.

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