Pitfalls, politics and profits: The race to find a coronavirus vaccine
Updated 01:01, 12-Feb-2020
Daniel Harries

As recorded cases pass 40,000 people, scientists, private companies and governments around the world are racing to develop a vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus. It's a challenge that requires unprecedented global cooperation, a union of public and private enterprises and a suspension of political and scientific norms.  

Coronaviruses present unique challenges that make vaccine development problematic. They are among one of the diverse groups of viruses affecting a variety of animals and mutated strains are emerging unpredictably. Existing drugs, like those developed to vaccinate against coronaviruses SARS and MERS, are not necessarily effective against new strains. 

Scientists at the Pasteur Institute developed and shared a quick test for the new virus that is spreading worldwide. /AP Photo

Scientists at the Pasteur Institute developed and shared a quick test for the new virus that is spreading worldwide. /AP Photo

Race for development 

There are three main stages for developing vaccines, says Christian Lindmeier, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO): Research teams must first identify "the best components" for the vaccine, which could take "any amount of time"; following which, rounds of ethical animal and human trials will be conducted; and, lastly, the successful vaccine will go into production – which could take anything from "six to nine months."

For Lindmeier, while it's "impossible" to know when a vaccine might be developed, it should not be expected before next year.  

Infection specialist Robin Shattock, a professor at Imperial College London, is leading one of the teams using the virus sequence that was shared by Chinese authorities to develop a vaccine.  

"We've gone from that sequence to making a vaccine candidate in 14 days, we're putting it into animal candidates next week and we will be looking for funding to rush that into human testing," Shattock told CGTN Europe.  

The processes behind vaccine development have been accelerated following the outbreak of the 2013-16 Ebola virus. In 2017, the public-private Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched to develop vaccines beyond the constraints of the private pharmaceutical market and states. 

Streamlined approval

Approval times for vaccinations vary. In the U.S., the process can take up to eight years as the drug goes for various clinical, ethical trials. Previous time frames are not workable should the new coronavirus continue to spread at its current rate.   

The reaction to the Ebola outbreak – in which 11,323 died, mainly in Western Africa – has been informative for the scientific community. Alexander Edwards, an immunologist at the University of Reading, told CGTN Europe: "Over the past five years, there's been a global agreement that we need to do something about the slow development of vaccines, so every step that can be time consuming, particularly the regulatory steps, paperwork steps are definitely accelerated." 

He added: "You can be assured that every shortcut that can be found will be taken.

"What you have to balance that against if we have an entirely new unknown medicine, and we have to make sure that it's safe." 

Money to be made, lives to be saved

The pharmaceutical and biotech industries are vital to the production of a vaccine. "There needs to be a strong collaboration between the world's scientists and then, of course, the manufacturers, to get it into production," said Lindmeier. 

Depending on the size of the outbreak, vaccines can also lead to financial windfalls for producers. 

Stocks in U.S. biotechnology company Moderna, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine with CEPI, have risen more than 10 percent in the weeks following the outbreak. While stock in Regeneron Pharmaceutical, which is developing a vaccine alongside the U.S. department of health, soared by 13 percent last week after the company announced it would be ready to test its drug on humans in a matter of months.

Balancing profits with public service is a long-standing issue in the pharmaceutical industry. An infamous 2018 report from Goldman Sachs titled Is curing patients a sustainable business model? garnered plenty of negative press, while companies that produce successful treatments one year can be financially ruined the next.  

The report warned, in reference to a successful hepatitis C treatment, that: "Curing existing patients also decreases the number of carriers able to transmit the virus to new patients." A pharmaceutical or biotech company can find there is a limited market for vaccines, a one-off purchase, compared with widespread conditions such as cancer. A company can also be reluctant to mass produce a vaccine only to find, by the time the vaccine is available, the outbreak is over.  

A solution to expand the market for vaccinations was laid out by Rolf Hilgenfeld in the scientific journal, Nature. Hilgenfeld, a coronavirus research expert at the University of Lübeck, in Germany, has been trying to develop coronavirus vaccines since the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. He and his team have recently created compounds that not only fight coronaviruses but are also effective against a large group of enteroviruses, one of which (enterovirus-71) affects half a million children annually.  

"We can get pharma involved. Then, if we have something approved for those, we can use the drug quickly next time there is a coronavirus outbreak," Hilgenfeld told Nature.  

A further problem can be cooperation. Osman Dar, director of the Global Health program's One Health project at Chatham House, told CGTN Europe: "It's still quite a competitive space and there's not been enough technological transfer between specialist groups." 

In a pandemic, these issues can come to the fore. Dar explained that: "Even if you have a vaccine... who gets access to the vaccine, which countries is it being produced in and manufactured in, often those countries will say 'we need to keep these for ourselves, in case millions of people in our country get affected.'" 

In Dar's ideal scenario, "each global region has its own capacity to assess and diagnose – the laboratories, skills and technologies – to both be able to detect and also to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and also have the manufacturing capacity."

Dar called for a furthering of cooperation between researchers, medical institutions and private companies. While currently there are a lack of "international agreements, which allows for the distributions and sharing of vaccines," he explained, the WHO has been attempting to "bring a bit of synergy to vaccine development for the benefit of humanity."