The Covid-19 pandemic has affected lives on a scale never seen before in recent history. The global economy is in the midst of its deepest recession in almost a century and a large population is forced to stay indoors.
Governments across the world are engaged in an intense battle to contain the pandemic and only a vaccine can be a definite and conclusive solution to help humankind return to normal life.
Vaccine development is a long process. It takes years and has high chances of even failure. However, with the current crisis in sight, several laboratories and pharmaceutical companies are moving at a quick pace on numerous potential vaccines and treatments. Some of them have even claimed that the vaccine may be ready by early next year.
Even Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US and a key member of US President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 task force, recently said in an interview that it could be possible to have hundreds of millions of doses of a potential Covid-19 vaccine ready by early next year.
However, it is a bit more complicated than it appears.
According to a tracker developed by Milken Institute, an independent think tank based in California, USA, there are currently 111 potential vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 in development and 197 treatments are being tested and considered.
Of the 111 potential vaccines, nine are under initial clinical trials while the rest are under pre-clinical trials.
In clinical trials, a vaccine is administered on human subjects to test its effectiveness and safety. These are usually done in three phases where the number of test candidates is increased at every stage after which, if successful, it is sent for regulatory review and approval before mass production.
Dr Ashley St. John, assistant professor at the Duke-NUS Medical School and principal investigator of the Laboratory of Immunity and Immune Pathology in the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases in Singapore, said that it is difficult to predict how long it can take for a Covid-19 vaccine to hit the market. She said that even in the best-case scenario, it could take several months for the vaccine to come to the market.
“However, the Covid-19 vaccine may be a little more complicated since there is not a standard vaccine for a similar type of virus we can update in the way we update the Influenza vaccine [every year]. The timeline can be attributed to the laboratory and human testing that are needed to establish that the vaccine is safe and effective,” she explained.
Even in a situation where scientists are able to come up with a vaccine soon, it would be difficult to immediately scale up manufacturing to produce enough doses of the same.
“If a vaccine is successful in human clinical trials I do not think that it is feasible to quickly scale up production. There are several notable efforts with significant amounts of funding to build production facilities for top vaccine candidates, such as by the Gates Foundation [which is spending $250 million to help speed up vaccine development],” Dr. John said.
Moreover, even as the search is on for a vaccine to contain the pandemic globally, some governments have indicated that they would move to immunize their own populations first. For instance, US President Trump is said to have been heading “Operation Warp Seed” to get 300 million doses for US citizens by January next year.
Similarly, Serum Institute of India CEO, Adar Poonawala, in an interview with Reuters said that “a majority of the vaccine, at least initially, would have to go to our countrymen before it goes abroad.” He further said that Serum would leave it to the Indian government to decide which countries would get how much of the vaccine and when. Serum is the largest manufacture of vaccine doses globally.
While there is an urgent need to develop a Covid-19 vaccine to help bring life back to normal, there could be downsides as well to the rush and contracting a process that takes years to just a few months.
An unsafe vaccine could potentially jeopardize the whole effort and complicate things further.
"We need to go through appropriate testing of the vaccine candidates before they are rolled out. It is essential that a vaccine be safe and effective…a rush to give people a vaccine that is unsafe in some way could be very detrimental and discourage people from taking other vaccines that are safe. This could do more harm than not having a vaccine," Dr. John said.
Additionally, the intense efforts to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 at the earliest among pharmaceutical companies may lead to the diversion of resources which may threaten some regions’ potential to thwart other existing health threats.
For instance, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa diverted immunization resources from communities that were at risk for other serious conditions for which vaccines already existed, noted the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.
Ron Waldman, a professor at the School had commented back in 2015 that he liked to “talk about the epidemic of non-Ebola mortality that occurred in the Ebola-affected countries during the outbreak.”
“There were many more deaths from malaria, many more deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea and non-Ebola causes because of the absolute disruption of the health care system,” he had said.
As of Sunday, nearly three and a half million people around the world were confirmed to be infected by the virus with almost a quarter of a million deaths.
While some countries have managed to relatively contain the virus from spreading further through strict restrictions on movement and social distancing, the cases continue to grow at a rapid pace in several other nations, most notably in the US and Russia.
Though the pandemic is “far from over” as the World Health Organization recently said, the normal life is expected to remain affected until we have a vaccine that is safe and effective, which may take some time.