Forget the space and arms races. Now Covid-19 has sparked another keenly-fought tussle: a global dash to find an effective vaccine to protect humanity from the biggest pandemic in more than 100 years.
As Western government-imposed lockdown programmes are cautiously relaxed amid fears of damaging potential second and third waves, the issue of how to defeat this highly-infectious new virus still looms large.
With effective testing and tracing regimes still far from being established in most counties and the “herd immunity” approach only currently being attempted in Sweden, scientists and governments believe a vaccine holds the most hope of a permanent solution.
The result of this realisation is what the Daily Telegraph calls a “mad scramble” to develop one, with around 90 potential vaccines, including seven currently in clinical trials, being developed for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
In the UK, attempts are being made at Oxford University and at Imperial College, London. Pharmaceutical groups GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi have also teamed up and aim to have a vaccine ready for testing at the end of this year.
In the US, the Government has committed to a $1bn Covid-19 vaccine with drugs group Johnson & Johnson, while Pfizer has designated three sites in the US and one in Belgium for the roll-out of its COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, if it is successful in initial tests. Moderna Therapeutics has also formed a strategic collaboration with Swiss group Lonza to manufacture its mRNA-1273 vaccine, using genetic material with a goal of enabling up to one billion doses a year.
Other vaccines are being formulated in India and in China, where nine are under development.
In addition, The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, set up after Ebola ravaged West Africa from 2014–2016, is said to be developing at least eight potential vaccines for Covid-19 and expects one of these to be ready for testing by the end of this month.
An Injection of Realism
Finding an effective vaccine remains a mountainous task, however. According to the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance: “all new vaccines that come into development are long shots,” with only some becoming a reality. “Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges,” he says. “This will take time and we should be clear that it is not a certainty.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also sounded caution, admitting that a vaccine may be more than a year away or may never be found.
Even that would break records for the least time between the identification of a brand new pathogen and the development of a vaccine against it. The current record for the fastest delivery of a vaccine from a laboratory to a clinic is four years.
The scale of the difficulty can be illustrated in several ways. One, articulated by Bruce Gellin, who runs the global immunisation programme for the Sabine Vaccine Institute, is that all experimental vaccines have a high attrition rate.
Some of the vaccines being developed are also so new that their strategies that have yet to lead to any vaccines being produced.
Johnson & Johnson vice-chairman Paul Stoffels also points out that any global COVID-19 vaccine would have to be manufactured and distributed at below-zero temperatures in billions of doses — a scale never attempted before.
A Different Angle
I believe that the complexity and difficulty inherent in finding a vaccine to prevent Covid-19, therefore, calls for innovative approaches. In 2019 I donated $2 million to support innovation at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear (ME&E) speciality hospital in Boston, USA. Now my UK-based Tej Kohli Foundation has made a fresh $100,000 donation to support a vaccine investigation that is being conducted by the same institution.
Harvard Medical School researchers based at Massachusetts Eye and Ear (ME&E) and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a novel and experimental gene-based Covid-19 vaccine utilizing technology that they claim are unique in its ability to scale and adapt rapidly.
AAVCOVID, developed in the laboratory of Luk H Vandenberghe, Director of ME&E’s Grousbeck Gene Therapy Center, is currently in pre-clinical development, with an aim to begin clinical trials later this year.
The vaccine is an adaptation of Adeno-Associated-Virus (AAV) technology, a form of gene therapy already in use to treat an inherited form of vision loss and spinal muscular atrophy.
Its methodology utilises a harmless ‘Trojan horse’ virus as a carrier to bring a tiny piece of the DNA of SARS-CoVid-2 into a patient’s cells, building a protein that stimulates their immune system to fight future infections.
Two of seven versions of the potential vaccine are currently being manufactured for studies in humans.
New Technology for New Challenges
Dr Vandenbergh says his team’s research identified AAV as a “superior technology” for safe and efficient gene delivery, harnessing the power of molecular biology to develop a draft of a vaccine in weeks.
He believes the unique technologies being applied to support the potential for a potent immunity to be induced from a single injection.
Mason Freeman, director of the Translational Research Centre at Mass General, adds that the AAVCOVID vaccine utilises an “elegant, novel and extremely creative approach”.
If a new strain of the SARS –Cov-2 virus emerges, the genetic code inside the AAVCOVID vaccine can be exchanged for an updated one and processed within weeks.
It is a promising example of my philosophy that new technical developments will be necessary to solve many of the world’s major healthcare challenges in the coming years.
While several other types of vaccines from COVID-19 are in development worldwide, I believe that AAV technology offers a number of advantages, including its adaptability, it’s potential to elicit a beneficial immune response globally.
Versions of AAV technology have been tested and proven effective over the last 20 years, including one in the world of vision care in which I have a long-established interest through the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in the UK.
As Anita Zaidi, who directs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s vaccine development programme, has pointed out, it may take several different vaccines to successfully immunise the world against Covid-19.
This is a race that may not have a single winner but we will all gain if many different vaccines cross the finishing line.