Multinational efforts are ongoing to develop effective jabs against COVID-19 that already killed nearly 1 million people around the world, but the development of a vaccine alone will not end this global crisis due to multiple challenging issues concerning supplies, mutations and origin of the virus, experts said.
“Even though many wealthy governments are negotiating bilateral deals with individual vaccine manufacturers, there is no guarantee that they will ultimately be able to get them for their citizens and we need billions of doses, making them available to people in every corner of the globe,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance as he joined the World Knowledge Forum online debate in Seoul Friday.
Dr. Berkley called for a global approach like COVAX, an initiative co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO), aiming at ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the world once the vaccines become available.
Another critical aspect of this initiative is its full support for speedy vaccine development given the mounting death tolls and an economic impact that costs $500 billion every month.
Unlike a normal 10-year vaccine development program, COVAX is trying to complete development within an 18-month timeframe through sequential trials and incentives to manufacturers with an initial aim of having 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, which he believes should be enough to protect high-risk and vulnerable people, as well as frontline health workers.
Dr. Jerome H. Kim, Director-General of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), echoed the initiative’s equity and access in vaccine distribution, citing that “13 years after a rotavirus vaccine was approved by the U.S. FDA and 11 years after the WHO’s recommendation, less than 40 percent of children receive necessary three doses.”
Safety is another hurdle for vaccine developers. “There is no silver bullet in solving this problem. There are many variables to be considered in the real-world,” said Dr. Kim, raising five questions about COVID-19 vaccine development, including whether natural COVID infection can prevent re-infection, whether we will need seasonal COVID vaccines and whether animal models are predictive.
He said it will be never easy to get back to the "old normal", adding “longer and formal monitoring for safety will be necessary” although shortening the clinical trial period can preserve efficacy.
Dr. Xiang-Jin Meng, Distinguished Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, focused on addressing the root cause of this pandemic with an animal origin, warning a new zoonosis will occur in the future without concentrating on its cause properly as we witnessed H1N1, SARS, Ebola, MERS and now COVID cases. A zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from animals to humans. More research will be needed to better understand whether the coronavirus came from a bat or a pangolin, said Dr. Meng, adding animal pathogens have infected humans due to deforestation, climate change, poaching, backyard farming, intensive farming practice and wildlife market to name a few.
By Minu Kim
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