In this dark despairing fog of gloom, there is a ray of light. That is, the real prospect of having a vaccine – in fact, probably several vaccines – against the novel coronavirus. The positive news from Oxford last week was that the vaccine it has developed not only appeared safe when administered to humans but also triggered an appropriate immune response. Of course, larger trials are needed to conclusively establish this vaccine’s safety. Also, no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, and only further trials will establish its overall efficacy. But the preliminary data on both counts, safety and efficacy, is heartening.
There are some 150 vaccines against coronavirus that are at various stages of development around the world. However, only a few pharmaceutical companies have begun, or close to embarking on, phase 3 trials. Moderna Inc., whose vaccine is supported strongly by the US government, is among them. So is the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech and a couple of others. India too is in the race for a vaccine with Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadilla conducting human trials in a few cities in the country. Meanwhile, five sites are ready in India to roll out phase 3 trials of the Oxford Vaccine, which has been developed in partnership with Astra-Zeneca, two of which are in Tamil Nadu – the National Institute of Epidemiology in Chennai and the Christian Medical College in Vellore. At the same time, there are reports that the Serum Institute of India, which is a partner to the University of Oxford vaccine development, has sought permission from the Drugs Controller of India for conducting phase 2 and 3 trials in the country.
Things have moved with such dizzying speed that the pessimism about when such a vaccine will be ready now seems unfounded. Governments around the world have cooperated and pumped in billions of dollars into this effort, for a mix of reasons ranging from public-spirited to politically self-serving. The coronavirus has led people in many countries to call their leaders to account, the US being the best example of this. With an election looming, and with a seemingly growing unhappiness over the way the Trump administration has handled the pandemic, the presidential poll could well be influenced by how early a vaccine is rolled out. Trump is pushing hard for an early date and it is no accident that the US vaccine programme is called Operation Warp Speed. However, with barely 100 days to go until polling day, the prospects of a pre-election vaccine seem uncertain at this juncture. The challenge is not about developing a vaccine. As the WHO has underlined, it is important that as many vaccines as possible are tested, given the difficulty in predicting how many will turn out to be viable. It is not about who gets there first, but about how many safe and efficacious vaccines we can get approvals for.