COVID-19 vaccines: a watershed moment for science
The eyes of the world are on the vaccines industry for an answer to COVID-19. Where are we in the search for a vaccine?
There is no doubt that vaccines will play a key role in helping the world move beyond the COVID crisis. Since January, when the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 virus was published, scientists have been working around the clock in search of a vaccine. Or to be more precise, in search of several vaccines.
We are witnessing an unprecedented global effort to translate science into solutions to one of our greatest ever challenges. There are now more than 40 vaccine candidates in human clinical trials, and dozens more in earlier stages of development.
Experience tells us that many of these will fail to get the green light from regulators. Perhaps they will not produce the required level of immunity or will fall short of the safety standards set by regulatory authorities. In our industry, this goes with the territory – for every medical innovation delivered in recent decades, there are many more failures.
However, given the number of potential vaccines – and the range of approaches researchers have taken – we can be reasonably confident that a number of vaccines will be approved in the months ahead. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is conducting rolling reviews of clinical trial data as it becomes available and says it expects to approve a range of vaccines in 2021.
These vaccines use a number of different scientific approaches and technologies – can you tell us a little more?
Some are built on knowhow developed from existing vaccines and research into other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS.
Others use new technologies which are being tested for the first time. All are the fruit of investment in research and innovation over many decades – and the rapid mobilisation of public and private resources in 2020.
COVID-19 vaccine developers are testing at least nine different vaccine technology platforms. Those currently being trialled in humans mostly fall into one of four categories:
- vaccines containing coronavirus proteins
- vaccines created from weakened or killed coronaviruses
- vaccines containing other viruses engineered to carry coronavirus genes
- vaccines that contain genetic material from SARS-CoV-2.
In all cases, the goal is to trigger an immune response that will prepare the body if it comes into contact with the virus.
In the coming weeks and months, more data will begin to flow from clinical trials. There is still much to learn about how effective each vaccine will be in preventing illness in various target groups, how long immunity will last, and how vaccines might affect transmission of the virus.
Assuming we see approval of a COVID-19 vaccine, what happens next?
Marketing authorisation is not the end of the process. Approved vaccines will still need to be manufactured, distributed, and administered in unprecedented number. Companies are already expanding manufacturing capacity to be able to produce the required quantities without knowing if the vaccine will be authorised.
Through COVAX, close collaboration between WHO, GAVI,CEPI, governments and industry is also helping to ensure that vaccines reach people around the world, including in low-income countries. The experience of the pandemic has reminded us that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Achieving all of this next year would be a stunning achievement. However, speed will not overtake safety. Trials are being conducted with maximum efficiency, but there are no short cuts.
CEOs from nine leading European and US vaccine developers made this clear last month. In a joint statement, vaccine industry leaders have pledged to uphold the integrity of the scientific and regulatory process as they work to deliver much-needed vaccines.
Every day takes us a step closer in finding a solution to the dramatic story of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a tale of the unexpected, and one that we’d rather had never begun. But, thanks to science, we will soon have more power to determine what happens next.