The race to create a vaccine against the Coronavirus within 18 months

GAVI response funding. The Vaccine Alliance said April 9th that they would provide 29 million dollars urgent initial funding to help 66 lower income countries respond to pandemic. More than 21’500 cases have been reported in the developing world. Up to 200 million dollars will be made available.

In a TED Connects video called “The Quest for a Coronavirus Vaccine”, Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of The Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), called the world to understand vaccine as a public good and bubble up to find one for Covid-19 as quickly as eighteen months. The Vaccine Alliance announced April 9th that they would provide 29 million dollars of urgent initial funding to help 66 lower income countries respond to the pandemic.

There is a race to create a new vaccine against Coronavirus. During an interview with Chris Anderson, the Curator of TED , on 26 March, Dr Berkley, a man who has devoted his life to public health, admitted that the scientific community does not yet understand the makeup of the coronavirus.

“It is being studied but there is a lot more to learn about the virus…Scientists have to figure it out quickly,” he emphasised.

Berkley highlighted that the World Health Organization (WHO) has been working with 44 companies to create a test vaccine for the virus. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has also created eight other potential vaccines. Berkley emphasised that during the race to create a vaccine, it is important that multiple options are being tested.

“We want a diversity in science. This is critical  because we need to compare the research conducted by companies and academic researchers and choose the most promising.”

He called for the world to consider the vaccine as a public good that should initially be financed by the public sector.

“We don’t care about where in the world the vaccine comes from. We just need to get it on the table. And then we need to distribute it as quickly as possible to the people that need it the most. Eventually, we will go back to the normal procedure of creating vaccines.”

The vaccine is expected to take 18 months. But there is no guarantee that it won’t take longer. Berkley reminded us that the creation of a vaccine has multiple phases, including animal testing, human studies, dosing, manufacturing, and regulations approval.

“There are lots of steps and it’s complicated… but in this case, we will do adaptive trials to speed the process up a great deal…It will most likely succeed.”

It usually takes an average 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine. For Ebola, the scientific community managed to squeeze all the different phases into 5 years. In the case of coronavirus, the world will do everything it can to create the vaccine as soon as possible, although 18 months seems to be the timeline.

“Part of it is luck… My job is to under-promise and overdeliver. We may be lucky, but a lot of things have to fall in place to happen… But I am optimistic. We have experience from SRAS and MERS vaccines.”

How long it will take? How effective will be? There are still a lot of questions, but Berkley is a great believer in science.

Berkley praised China for posting the genetic sequence of the virus in 42 days, making it  possible to develop a test vaccine very quickly.

The financing of the vaccine. The creation of a vaccine will amount to tens of millions of dollars, which is nothing in comparison to the trillions needed to avoid further economic damage.

“We should optimize for speed and ignore the cost at this time.”

The question should be understood from the global perspective. The vaccine should then be made available first to health workers working on the front line and to high risk individuals like the elderly and patients with pre-existing conditions, and then to the rest of the population. Access should be provided equitably, and not only in wealthy countries.

“We will have to decide where our priority lies.”

Berkley also pointed out that technology should be distributed internationally in order to launch the vaccine effectively.

Confinement is the priority. Berkley stressed that the best response right now is to remain in self-isolation.

“I would not recommend that you go and get immunised.”

Berkley admitted that there are still a lot of things we don’t know about the disease, as it is only 4 months old. We don’t know if asymptomatic people are immune or not; we don’t know if you can become immune in the long run; and we don’t know why children are infected at a lesser rate than adults. We don’t know if they are infected but don’t spread the disease, or if they don’t carry it at all.

“We cannot assume that we will become immune in the long term… In the long run, we  need a vaccine.”

When asked about the effect that confinement can have on the economy, and whether letting people out too early might risk the resurgence of the virus, Berkley emphasised that we must learn from the Chinese experience. The outbreak should be controlled before we can go back to normal.

“You can’t have certain areas of the world with a raging disease. The virus is mutating and is easy to reintroduce. So we have to get rid of it, and only confinement can stop the epidemic.”

If countries don’t take it seriously, there could be serious outbreaks over the next few years, not only months.

“We have to control the disease so that we can go back to normal.”

Berkley also couldn’t give us a timeline for this. The curve has to bend and reach a level of contagion well below one per cent. It is only after this that regulations about confinement can be slowly released.

“The Data will tell us. That’s why testing is so important. We should not rush it,” he said.

In the meantime, before a vaccine is ready, he stressed that antibody treatments in emergency situations and drugs to treat the sick are the best option.

We are unprepared for the virus. Berkley suggested that world leaders need to prioritise the virus because millions of dollars are currently being spent on nuclear weapons, whereas nothing goes against pandemics.

“We need to prepare for new viruses and have better rapid responses.”

Berkley suggested that better surveillance everywhere in the world, immunisation, the identification of likely hotspots, the use of predictive science with data and AI, or a different approach to health and investment could be used to prepare us for the virus.

“We are not as prepared as we should be. From an evolutionary perspective, we will definitely have more outbreaks.”

About Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is a public-private partnership that helps vaccinate half the world’s children against some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Since its inception in 2000, Gavi has helped to immunise over 760 million children and prevented more than 13 million deaths, in 73 developing countries.