John Whelan: Frantic drive underway to develop a vaccine

The drive to find a vaccine to combat the coronavirus is well underway, writes John Whelan.

A laboratory technician wearing a biohazard overall performs coronavirus detection tests inside an isolation chamber at a laboratory in the Torlak Institute of Virology in Belgrade, Serbia, on Wednesday.    Photo: Oliver Bunic/ Bloomberg
A laboratory technician wearing a biohazard overall performs coronavirus detection tests inside an isolation chamber at a laboratory in the Torlak Institute of Virology in Belgrade, Serbia, on Wednesday. Photo: Oliver Bunic/ Bloomberg

Several large pharmaceutical and smaller biotech companies are working on making new antibodies, drugs and vaccines to combat the coronavirus disease but lack of funds may yet get in the way.

The European Commission has approved funding for 17 projects involving private sector teams from different countries including Ireland.

The private sector is contributing funding to the committed funds.

The Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, has called on governments around the world to invest more.

It bluntly says that billions more will be needed.

At a minimum, it costs around €2.6bn to develop a new vaccine, the coalition says, after saying at the start of the outbreak it would inject €90m into an initial programme of vaccine development.

It aims to have potential candidates in early-stage human testing in as little as four months.

The UK government has announced £20m of additional funding, beyond the £30m it had given to CEPI. And Germany last week said it would commit €145m to CEPI.

“It’s a very risky business — everything is being done in parallel, you’re not building on the expertise of others — but good progress is being made,” said Melanie Saville, the coalition’s director of vaccine research and development.

While there are no guarantees of delivering a vaccine, the “aspiration” is to have millions of doses available for the public to use within 12 to 18 months, the coalition said.

German company Cure Vac was caught in the media spotlight after US president Donald Trump’s administration allegedly said it would fund its Covid-19 vaccine but for use in the US only.

Cure Vac subsequently denied there was any such offer.

The company received €80m from the EU so that the German start-up’s research is for both EU and global use. In the US, the Biomedical Advisory Research and Development Authority, or Barda, is coordinating a series of initiatives.

But the Trump administration is putting pressure on the wide range of pharmaceutical companies located in the US to fund the research.

Private sector foundations have also offered specific funding for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed large sums, as have the UK-based Wellcome Trust and the MasterCard Impact Fund.

The UK is expected to have its first trials on humans next month.

Researchers at Oxford University, led by professor Sarah Gilbert, indicated that animal trials will commence this week and provided all goes well, they will move directly to trials on humans to assess how effective the vaccine is at protecting against the infection.

One of the most advanced efforts in the US is being led by Moderna along with the National Institute of Health, which began vaccinating volunteers in Seattle last week.

However, big pharmaceutical companies are playing on a global scale and are going about their efforts accordingly.

Hence, Pfizer has agreed to co-develop with Germany-based firm BioNTech’s a vaccine candidate.

The BioNTech product is expected to enter clinical studies in April.

In parallel, BioNTech also announced a partnership with Fosun Pharma of China to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, which it said could also begin clinical testing in late April.

Regeneron and partner Sanofi announced US-based trials of a treatment based on existing drug therapies.

While both companies have extensive manufacturing facilities in Ireland, company reports indicate that Regeneron will lead the research studies at their US labs, while Sanofi will take care of studies outside the US which are due to start in the coming weeks.

The need of the hour is fast development of any treatment or vaccine, not just to save lives but to help collapsing worldwide economies to recover.

- John Whelan is managing partner at Irish trade consultancy The Linkage-Partnership

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