The race to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is underway, and multiple nations have thrown their hats into the ring. According to the WHO, “A vaccine helps the body’s immune system to recognize and fight pathogens like viruses or bacteria, which then keeps us safe from the diseases they cause”.
A vaccine typically undergoes several stages of development- from discovery to human trials, regulatory approval and manufacturing. These stages require time and multiple tests before the vaccine is ready for widespread use. Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, has stated that a vaccine won’t be ready before 12-18 months.
On 23rd April, a potential vaccine began human trials at the University of Oxford. The UK’s health secretary has pledged £20 million in funding for the Oxford project, and another £22.5 million for clinical trials at Imperial College London, which plans to conduct human trials in early June.
With the cash, the researchers plan to produce a million doses of the experimental vaccine by September. This means that the shots will be produced in large numbers at risk of being useless if trials show they do not work.
The Serum Institute of India, a firm based in Pune, has partnered with Codagenix, an American biotech company, to develop a “live attenuated” vaccine. It has also joined hands with the University of Oxford, for large-scale production of the aforementioned vaccine, if human trials are successful. Other Indian firms like Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadilla, Biological E and Mynvax are also working on vaccines of their own.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a not-for-profit organization that finances research projects to develop vaccines, has been at the forefront of this. It is developing eight potential vaccines for COVID-19.
Scientists around the world have joined efforts through organizations like CEPI for coordinated action against the disease. But there are major hurdles as well. Manufacturing and distributing a billion doses will be an extremely difficult task.
Politics and capital come in the way of large-scale distribution. According to Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, this means production facilities will have to be set up in advance and vaccines produced in volume before we know they work. This will require coordination among nations at an international level.
Organizations like CEPI plan to make vaccines available for health care workers first, and then other vulnerable groups.
The response from scientists has been exceptional. If a vaccine is ready within 18 months, it will be the fastest vaccine ever developed by humans.