Pharmaceutical companies working on Covid-19 vaccine candidates are releasing early results and moving into final stage trials, as the world waits to see if they can compress the usual years-long timeline to create such a product.
The stakes are high: the coronavirus pandemic has already cost almost 590,000 lives and ravaged the global economy, and it is showing no sign of abating. Countries have poured billions of dollars into vaccine development as a possible exit route.
There are glimmers of hope in the latest developments, with a number of candidates producing virus-fighting antibodies in early trials, according to preliminary statements and published data.
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US pharmaceutical company Moderna on Tuesday published its phase one results showing its product was safe and produced immune responses in all 45 of the people who took part in the trial. The company, working with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it planned to start final phase trials later this month.
US firm Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said on Monday that they planned to ramp up testing of their vaccine candidate to 30,000 people as early as this month, pending approval, after preliminary results showed initial trials provoked an immune response.
In Britain, a vaccine candidate developed by Oxford University in partnership with British firm AstraZeneca has already entered phase three trials – the last step before possible approval – while its phase one results are set to be released on Monday.
Several Chinese companies are also in or entering the third stage of clinical trials, during which vaccine candidates are evaluated for safety and efficacy in large groups – often running into the tens of thousands.
Chinese firm Sinopharm began its phase three trials on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, according to the government there, while China’s Sinovac Biotech said last week it was starting phase three trials of its vaccine candidate in Brazil.
A vaccine already approved for military use – made by China’s CanSino Biologics and the People’s Liberation Army – is also close to entering final stage trials overseas.
About 123 vaccine candidates are already at the human trial stage, while 140 others are in preclinical evaluation, according to the World Health Organisation. While none has been approved for public use, governments around the world are competing to secure doses and advance their candidates.
Damian Purcell, head of the molecular virology laboratory at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said that while the speed of development of vaccine candidates was good, scientists needed to work together to ensure safety.
“We really have to be collaborative as a [global research] community and continue to communicate results in a very open and unbiased manner that doesn’t necessarily focus on success but looks very hard for any failure,” he said.
“These things take time and they are complicated,” he said.
It was often the case that vaccine candidates needed to go through long-term studies to understand the “full and mature immune response to the disease” and whether there were any adverse results from immunity, he said.
Florian Krammer, professor of vaccinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said that advances by multiple vaccine candidates in different countries was a “very positive development”.
“That is important since one producer alone will not be able to satisfy the global demand [and] different vaccines might be better for different groups of individuals, such as children versus adults,” he said.
Ashley St John, an assistant professor involved in vaccine research at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, said it was possible the first Covid-19 vaccines might not be 100 per cent effective for all individuals, but would help populations reach a high enough threshold of immunity, of about 50 to 70 per cent.
That would in turn slow the rate of transmission of the disease and prevent “huge exponential outbreaks”, she said.
“It takes time to understand how durable the immune response is and then we might need studies that optimise that,” she said.
Several recent studies have suggested that people who become infected with the coronavirus naturally but suffer only mild or no symptoms do not build up long-lasting antibody protection to Covid-19.
A group of British researchers said this might have implications on the durability of vaccine protection.
Nigel McMillan, programme director of infectious diseases and immunology at Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Australia’s Griffith University, said it was possible people might need to have booster shots after an initial vaccination.
However, vaccine developers were “well aware” of such research and similar phenomena in other coronaviruses and had “designed vaccine protocols to maximise immune responses”, he said.
“Mid-next year should see the first vaccines ready for market if all goes well,” he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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This article Covid-19 vaccine candidates move closer to final testing first appeared on South China Morning Post