Email of the day on the lead time to develop a vaccine
Comment of the Day

April 20 2020

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

Email of the day on the lead time to develop a vaccine

Eoin, you are an optimist. I hope you will be proven right! for another point of view read the article from today's New York Times: "The Coronavirus in America: The year Ahead". One factoid: the record time for producing a vaccine is 4 years, for mumps.

Eoin Treacy's view

Thank you for this email and I agree the New York Times article certainly paints a gloomy picture of potential success rates with developing vaccines. I thought the most useful portion of the article was to highlight just how patchy information relating to the COVID-19 virus really is.

This article covering the evolution of a vaccine for Ebola is particularly enlightening on the challenges that need to be overcome to succeed. Here is a section:

And for years, they had seen promising work smash up against unscalable walls. There was no potential for drug makers to recoup development costs; and, with outbreaks only sporadic, there was little opportunity to subject experimental vaccines to rigorous tests.

But faced with the prospect of Ebola victims lying abandoned in the streets of African cities — and the world’s self-interested realization that the virus rampaging through West Africa wasn’t likely to stay there — the balance would eventually tip.

“That big outbreak was a game-changer and reminded people that this exotic virus could become a real threat to public health regionally as well as in a global perspective,” said Dr. Heinz Feldmann, Kobinger’s predecessor, who led the work to develop the vaccine.

In a capitalism system, the candidates with the best potential to recover their production costs and deliver a return on investment are the most likely to attractive competition to develop solutions. Ebola is an oddity in that it kills quickly but requires human contact for transmission. Social distancing quickly eradicates outbreaks. The coronavirus outbreak is a much bigger market with the potential for billions of doses of vaccine. Competition to be first to market is fierce.

This note from Moderna’s website highlights how much technology has progressed in the last decade. Let’s remember that the genome was only sequenced for the first time less than 20 years ago, so comparing the lead time to development of vaccines before that date is not particularly instructive.

One of the biggest obstacles to getting therapies into the field is the human trials program which is a necessary inhibiting factor to ensure safety. However, it is quite likely even that will be accelerated by deliberately infecting volunteers with the virus in order to test the effectiveness of the vaccine. There are obvious ethical issues with that approach but it is also true that soldiers have been used a guinea pigs for this kind of testing for generations.

I remain optimistic that a working prototype will be in the field among medical personnel by the third quarter.    

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