A vaccine for Covid-19 could take anywhere from 18 months to a number of years to develop and a global effort will be needed to deliver a universally available, low cost, treatment in the developed and developing world.
That was the consensus among leading Irish and international scientists and experts speaking at a video conference hosted by Access to Medicines Ireland.
Less than 100 days after the coronavirus epidemic took hold in China and spread across the world, the scientific, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors are focussing research efforts on finding a new treatment or vaccine as well as testing the potential use of existing medicines.
The Covid-19 pandemic has so far killed more than 75,000 people and infected over 1.3 million people worldwide.
In January, just weeks after Covid-19 took hold in China, researchers mapped the genetic code of the virus and shared it globally so that other scientists could develop tests and begin the search for a vaccine.
Already 41 companies and institutes are researching ways to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, while the potential of 23 anti-inflammatory drugs and six anti-viral treatments are also being investigated.
Pharmaceutical giant, Johnson and Johnson, is one company that is leading the way having invested $500 million (€460m) to develop a Covid-19 vaccine and committing to making any new vaccine affordable.
Experts say, in reality, it may take anywhere from 18 months to several years before a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available.
Professor Sam McConkey, an infectious disease specialist at RCSI, told the AMI conference it can take years to take research from the laboratory to a tried and tested medical treatment.
“I’m pessimistic that we’re going to have a solution to this technically in the next three to six months. I think we’re looking at two to three years for a possible vaccine,” he said.
Existing vaccines used to prevent other diseases, however, could also have a role to play, according to Professor of Biochemistry and Immunology at TCD Luke O’Neill.
The BCG vaccine, he said, was shown to boost the immune system and protect against other infections, such as measles and may hold some promise against Covid-19.
It was designed to prevent tuberculosis and first introduced to Ireland in the 1940s.
“It puts up a barrier that repels many germs. That has provoked seven separate trials running right now,” Professor O’Neill said.
“There is something going on here with BCG. This will not be a specific vaccine but it could provide a non-specific boost that will protect you against Covid-19,” he said, adding that further research is needed.
Other existing drugs and treatments may work by accident rather than design but require more scientific study to understand and test their potential use against Covid-19.
Hydroxychloroquine, a common anti-malaria drug, was touted by US President Donald Trump as a possible treatment for Covid-19 but scientists have concerns and say it is too early to say what role, if any, it can play.
We need to put access before patents, transparency on price or cost before trade secrets, and organise collective governance instead of working with unilateral control by a large company/
Professor Sam McConkey said the potential use of the anti-malaria drug for Covid-19 was more a theory at present and required further controlled studies.
Professor Luke O’Neill added the anti-inflammatory drug was shown in some studies to have toxic effects on the heart and studies required careful monitoring.
Separately new drugs, such as Remdisivir developed as a potential treatment for Ebola by US biotech company, Gilead, are being hailed as potential game changers in the battle against Covid-19, with preliminary trial results due later this month.
The company, however, has yet to clarify issues around the patent for the drug.
Humanitarian groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have called for a ban on patents or profiteering on drugs, tests, or vaccines used for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the AMI conference Dr Gaelle Krikorian, Head of Policy at MSF’s access campaign, said: “We need to change some of the norms. We need to put health before profits.
"We need to put access before patents, transparency on price or cost before trade secrets, and organise collective governance instead of working with unilateral control by a large company”.