Coronavirus Pandemic

Coronavirus vaccine race gathers pace around the world

Filed on June 19, 2020 | Last updated on June 19, 2020 at 06.37 am
coronavirus vaccine, covid-19, oxford, china

(Reuters file)

Around 10 potential vaccines are now undergoing trials in humans.

The World Health Organization hopes hundreds of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine can be produced this year and 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on Thursday.

The WHO is drawing up plans to help decide who should get the first doses once a vaccine is approved, she said.

Priority would be given to frontline workers such as medics, those who are vulnerable because of age or other illness, and those who work or live in high-transmission settings such as prisons and care homes.

"I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic. But vaccine development is a complex undertaking, it comes with a lot of uncertainty," she said. "The good thing is, we have many vaccines and platforms so even if the first one fails, or the second ones fails, we shouldn't lose hope, we shouldn't give up."

Around 10 potential vaccines are now undergoing trials in humans, in the hope that a shot to prevent infection can become available in coming months. Countries have already begun making deals with pharmaceutical companies to order doses, even before any vaccines have been proven to work.

Swaminathan described the ambition for hundreds of millions of doses this year as optimistic, and the hope for up to 2 billion doses of up to three different vaccines next year as a "big if".

She added that genetic analysis data collected so far showed that the new coronavirus has not yet mutated in any ways that would alter the severity of the illness it causes.

Large multi-country trials of the combination HIV drug lopinavir/ritonavir to treat Covid-19 have recruited thousands of patients and the World Health Organization is now looking at interim data, the UN agency's chief scientist said.

Several thousand patients had been enrolled in the lopinavir/ritonavir arm of the WHO-led Solidarity Trial and in a separate UK-led Covid-19 trial of the drug combination.

"This is already a huge number and should be enough to tell us whether this drug is actually having a mortality benefit or a benefit on disease severity," she said.

Another arm of the WHO-led trial, looking at the potential effect of Gilead's antiviral drug remdesivir in Covid-19, might need more patients, she said.

"(We are) looking at ways to maximise the generation of knowledge about drugs which are promising," she said. "On the drug remdesivir, we still do not have a definitive answer on its impact on mortality - which is what we would like to see."

The Solidarity Trial started out with five arms looking at possible treatment approaches to Covid-19: standard care; remdesivir; the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine; the HIV drugs lopinavir/ritonavir; and lopanivir/ritonavir combined with interferon.

"We will come back very soon on further decisions on the Solidarity Trial. It's an adaptive design - you can change and adapt as you go on," Swaminathan said.

On Wednesday the WHO stopped the arm testing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 patients, after studies indicated it showed no benefit in those who have the disease.

Swaminathan said more studies are still needed to see whether hydroxchloroquine may be effective as a preventative medicine. US President Donald Trump has touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, and said he took it to prevent infection. - Agencies

Top 5 vaccine candidates

1. Moderna is racing ahead with its mRNA platform, with Phase 3 trials in 30,000 volunteers due to begin in July - the first vaccine candidate to pass this milestone

2. Oxford University's adenovirus vaccine candidate has the backing of pharma giant Astra-Zenecand. Phase 3 trials are on in the UK, US and Brazil

3. China's CanSino adenovirus vaccine also looks promising with 90% of human volunteers showing antibodies in June 15 results. Phase 3 trials will be next

4. The safest bet is to use the long-proven route of an inactivated virus vaccine - the Chinese company Sinovac is the one to watch here

5. Inovio was first off of the blocks when the COVID viral sequence was published, but is still stuck on the starting line

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