Coronavirus vaccine: how close are we to finding the answer?

Doctor preparing the coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine. Details of hands and syringe.

As coronavirus continues its spread, there is pressure mounting to find a vaccine that will aid in ending the pandemic.

Public-facing scientists remain adamant that a full vaccine will not be accessible for the next 12 to 18 months, seeing emphasis in research shift somewhat from finding a cure to boosting detection and treatment in the quest to save lives and reduce the mounting death toll.

Australia’s medical research response

Research is happening at breakneck speed and there are more than 20 vaccines currently in development all over the world. Much research is being undertaken within Australia, with researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity saying they are “a few weeks” from concluding clinical trials of drugs to reduce the deadliness of the coronavirus by early diagnosis and treatment.

A team of researchers from the institute analysed four blood samples taken from one of the first patients diagnosed with COVID-19. The woman aged in her 40s was admitted to a hospital in Melbourne after having travelled to Wuhan, China. Her symptoms included lethargy, sore throat, dry cough and a fever. She was otherwise healthy.

The study, published in Nature Medicine on Tuesday 17 March, identified the antibodies recruited by the body to fight the illness, noting that the immune system responded to COVID-19 in the same way it would have had the patient been fighting the flu.

The researchers are hoping to find procedures for early detection of Covid-19, which will be particularly useful in aged care homes that house elderly people who are at the greatest risk.

“I am actually quite optimistic we will have results at least – whether the results are good or not so good – from many clinical trials in the next few weeks,” director of the Peter Doherty Institute, Sharon Lewin, told The Guardian.

“The timeline for antiviral drugs and knowing whether they work or not is much shorter than for vaccines,” she said. “Because these studies are using existing drugs, we know they are safe and we know how to use them. We just don’t know if they lead to a clinical benefit.”

On Monday April 13, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the federal government would be contributing $3 million to aid in research and diagnosis, with $2 million of this being dedicated to the Doherty Institute’s early diagnosis of infections in age care accommodation.

Around the world

Internationally, two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), have joined forces in an attempt to create a vaccine they hope will enter clinical trials this year, potentially making it available in the second half of 2021.

The vaccine will combine a Sanofi-developed antigen, which stimulates the production of germ-killing antibodies, with GSK’s adjuvant technology, a substance that boosts the immune response triggered by a vaccine, the pharma giants said in a statement.

“The companies plan to initiate phase I clinical trials in the second half of 2020 and, if successful, subject to regulatory considerations, aim to complete the development required for availability by the second half of 2021,” they said.

Despite the competition between leading pharmaceutical giants at this time, the extraordinary humanitarian and financial toll of the pandemic is seeing the industry band together in a joint effort to discover a vaccine.

What COVID-19 means for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries

While research for a viable vaccine is occurring rapidly, the spread and devastation of coronavirus has highlighted the need for faster development of such drugs. And while the industry has indeed been using data and analytics for years, the challenge lies in leveraging its full potential. A large amount of clinical and molecular data available over the years can help in predictive analytics, which can be used to hasten the process of clinical trials, forecasting and drug development in the future.

It is also likely that there will be a significant rise in the area of digital health as telemedicine / video consultations, health-related videos and apps become more vital during this time of isolation. The pharmaceutical and medical industries will likely need to adapt to this shift, investing in online portals that help doctor-patient interaction and even technology for remote clinical trials.

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