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Coronavirus: Inside the global race to find a Covid-19 vaccine

Thirty-five companies said to be looking for treatment

Andrew Buncombe
Wednesday 18 March 2020 21:50 GMT
US scientists begin study for Covid-19 vaccine

When Jennifer Haller saw a friend’s Facebook post requesting volunteers for the trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine, she barely paused.

The same day she filled out the online form asking questions about her medical health. The following morning she received a phone call asking more questions and requesting she give a blood sample for screening. She checked out.

At 8am on Monday the 43-year-old, who has two teenage children, Ellie and Hayden, was the first of 45 volunteers from the Seattle area to be injected in the upper left arm with a drug its developers believe could help beat Covid-19. Nothing is certain, the outcomes are unknown. But Haller and the other volunteers are happy to be playing their part.

“I think we all feel so helpless,” Haller tells The Independent, when asked why she was so willing to take part. “And this was a great opportunity to try and make a difference. I’m so thankful that I have this opportunity. It’s a privilege to be healthy, and to have a job that is flexible enough to let me do this.”

Haller is a small but crucial part of a global effort to confront the coronavirus, which has upended lives, threatened economic ruin, confined people to their homes and, perhaps, allowed us to take stock of what in our lives we ought most to value.

As of Thursday, global infections had topped 218,000 and the death toll raced past 9,000. Across the world, stock markets are in free-fall and governments are struggling to enforce measures to “flatten the curve”.

A light at the end of what could be a very long tunnel would be a vaccine to effectively treat the disease and allow life to try to return to normal. Experts point out the disease has disrupted and devastated life in ways we are struggling to conceive. But so did diseases such as measles, polio, smallpox and tuberculosis.

Reports suggest as many as 35 pharmaceutical firms, some aided by grants from government or philanthropists, are involved in the hunt for a vaccine for Covid-19. These firms are part of a massive industry and a vaccine market said to be worth $35bn (£30bn).

The trial in which Haller is taking part involves a drug developed by Moderna, a biotechnology firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Another trial, involving a drug developed by Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals, could start next month. A German firm, CureVac, is said to be working on a potential vaccine, one the Trump administration reportedly tried to buy.

“They are all racing against the disease, rather than against each other,” says John Tregoning, an expert in infectious diseases at Imperial College London.

“The more irons there are in the fire, the greater the chance of coming up with something. Also, it will help with the ability to produce as many as 9 billion vaccines.”

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The trial under way in Seattle, backed by the national institutes of health (NIH) and Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute, involves a drug called ​mRNA-1273.

“Over the past few years, we have demonstrated its potential in vaccines across more than 1,000 subjects in our clinical trials,” Moderna says. “This includes successful early-stage (Phase 1) clinical trials against five other respiratory viruses (two pandemic influenza strains, RSV, hMPV and PIV3). Over the last four years, we have started nine clinical trials for mRNA vaccines.

“We had previously collaborated with the NIH on a vaccine for MERS-CoV, which is a different type of coronavirus than the current pandemic. While the programme was only at the research stage, it provided significant insights.”

Experts point out one of the reasons there is much excitement about what is happening in Seattle is that, unlike many previous vaccines, mRNA-1273 does not involve a sample of the actual virus. Rather, with input from Chinese authorities about the genetic sequence of the coronavirus first detected in the city of Wuhan, it makes use of messenger RNA molecules.

These instruct the body to produce its own immune response to fight again the coronavirus. It means those taking part in trials are not exposed to the virus and could theoretically speed up the process of identifying a vaccine.

“Going from not even knowing that this virus was out there to having a vaccine [in testing in about two months] is unprecedented,” Lisa Jackson, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Kaiser Permanente study leader, says.

Jennifer Haller’s children, Hayden and Ellie, think it is ‘cool’ she is taking part in the trial (AP)

“We don’t know whether this vaccine will induce an immune response or whether it will be safe. That’s why we’re doing a trial. It’s not at the stage where it would be possible or prudent to give it to the general population.”

In what critics have said is a succession of factual errors about the coronavirus and its threat to the US and the world, Donald Trump told reporters a vaccine could be produced within “weeks”.

One of his top health officials, Anthony Fauci, director of the national institute of allergy and infectious diseases, was soon obliged to pour cold water on the president’s claims.

“The whole process is going to take a year, year-and-a-half at least,” he said. “I don’t want to overpromise.”

Tregoning, of Imperial College London, says there is a very strict protocol that is followed with developing potential vaccines, despite, or perhaps because of, the pressure to move too quickly. As such, any drug can only be made available after approval of a national licensing body or the World Health Organisation.

“What we don’t want is something making the situation worse,” he says.

Haller, who works for a tech start-up and who says her children think it’s “cool” she is taking part, has been asked to write a daily journal and speaks on the phone with one of the Kaiser team most days.

Every week she needs to give a blood sample, and in a month she will receive the second dose of the vaccine. The 45 volunteers, all aged 18 to 55, have been split into three groups, with different strengths given to each.

The monitoring will last a year but Moderna says safety data will be available a few weeks after the injections are given.

A Moderna official told the New York Times that if the drug appears safe it will ask the Food and Drug Administration for permission to move ahead to the next phase of testing to assess its effectiveness. That would involve a larger number of volunteers.

For now, Haller is going about her life, hoping her efforts can help not just her fellow Americans but people around the world.

“It’s wild,” she says. “It’s incomprehensible to me right now but I am so thankful to be part of it.”

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