The search for a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus is fast paced. At the moment, there are around 150 projects being developed by researchers around the world.
Among the candidates, 20 are already in the human testing phase. Two of them are in “phase 3”, the last step before registration at regulatory bodies, when thousands of people are vaccinated so that efficacy and potential side effects can be evaluated.
The most advanced study is being conducted by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca, in partnership with the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom.
Brazil is collaborating with this effort, being made from a chimpanzee’s adenovirus – since last weekend, two thousand Brazilian volunteers are receiving test doses at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp)
With the urgency ushered in by the pandemic, in order for a vaccine to be made in record time, skipping certain steps and investing heavily are needed – normal development takes ten to 15 years. Never has this much money been poured into research aimed at protecting people against a disease.
“Operations are shortened. Instead of taking three years it takes three months. Each step advances without the previous one ever being completed, only with the preliminary results they can move onto the next steps”, explains epidemiologist Akira Homma, from the Fiocruz Institute of Immune Biology, considered to be one of the 50 most influential scholars on vaccines in the word.
Research progress doesn’t mean anything. More than half of vaccines that reach the last phase are never put to market, says Dr. Reinaldo Guimarães, vice president of the Collective Healthcare Association of Brazil (Abrasco).
“More than half of potential vaccines that get to phase 3, around 60% of them don’t get sold, they don’t become products”, says the physician.
Reinaldo is of the opinion that the possible discovery of a vaccine may not be a final solution to contain he virus so soon.
“It’s a bullet with silver lining, but it’s not a silver bullet. It’s not like there is a one punch solution against the epidemic. There will never be one. We have a flu vaccine but every year we still get cases of the flu, some bad ones, serious or fatal. With covid it will be the same thing. That’s if the vaccine is really good”, he points out.
The importance of nationalizing
The collaboration of Brazilian researchers with international studies is no guarantee that the country will be eligible for the initial doses. For the most part, development is left to the hands of big-pharma, run by investors thirsty for profits and financed by the governments of wealthy nations.
There is a chance that Brazil will be left out if the vaccine is discovered in countries with powerful economies. For this not to happen, Brazilian researchers like Akira Homma, have dedicated themselves to staying up to date on what is being done worldwide. .
“The possibility of the vaccine being developed and we getting left behind exists of course. But we are closely monitoring the situation and maintaining direct contact with the labs that have advanced more, seeking a negotiation to be able to incorporate their technology, or their vaccine, so that one way or another, Brazil won’t be left behind, with no treatment.
The expert stated that the national development of a potential vaccine, would liberate Brazil’s economic and political dependence on countries like the United States. The base structures is available to make Brazil independent on this issue.
“Depending on the technology used, we are able to start producing immediately, because we have industrial level vaccine production infrastructure – viral vaccines, like it’s the case with covid, or even producing it via bacterial methods. We have labs that can handle this”, Homma reassured.
The epidemiologist points out that Fiocruz itself is working to develop a vaccine. “We have researchers developing the vaccine too. We have groups in São Paulo at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, making these efforts since the very start, but we are little behind some other labs “.
Akira says he’s optimistic about the discovery of an antiviral drug, but is cautious to speak of cure for the novel coronavirus.
“Will the vaccine solve everything? I don’t know. However, we are indeed hopeful that a good vaccine will be developed. But the scientific know-how regarding pathology and the the way the vaccine acts still need to be looked at”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is expecting hundreds of millions of doses a covid-19 vaccine to be produced this year, and another 2 billion by the end of 2021, according to their chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.
According to the WHO, priority would be given to healthcare professionals on the front lines, to vulnerable people, due to age or a pre existing condition, and those in high risk environments like retirement homes and prisons.
“I am hopeful, I’m optimistic. The development of vaccines is a complex undertaking that involves a lot of uncertainty”, she said. “The good thing is that we have lots of different vaccines, so if the first one fails, or the second one fails, we should not loose hope, we cannot give up”, affirmed the WHO scientist.