It is no secret to anyone that science does not have all answers desired by the world and that there is currently a race-against-the-virus scenario. However, this could be favorable for research and medical development.
One of the stories to be told in the coming years will be the accelerated scientific development that responded to COVID-19. The urgency of addressing coronavirus has accelerated the processes of research and clinical trials. Collaboration has also been observed between governments and the private sector, who have provided funding needed for the research.
On May 28th, one week before the 10th Annual Vaccine World Summit, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) held a press conference to update the world on the efforts and partnerships made by the industry. To understand the sense of responsibility of the development and research branch, the Federation invited Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s CEO, Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO, Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Scientific Officer, and Thomas Cueni, IFPMA’s Director General.
So, what has been the progress in the race against coronavirus?
Discovering a vaccine
The first thing to consider is that probably some of the vaccines that are under study will not provide the expected results. So, it is important to have multiple options. On 27th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported ten candidate vaccines under clinical trials and 115 candidate vaccines under preclinical trials. According to Paul Stoffels “at the end of the race there should be around 5 to 10 different vaccines for the word”.
For AstraZeneca, an important part of the process is the collection of information to move quickly once clinical trials begin. According to its CEO, Pascal Soriot, part of this process is having volunteers to test the vaccines. The England-based pharmaceutical company currently has volunteers in Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, and the UK.
Meanwhile, other companies like GlaxoSmithKline are not prototyping for a vaccine, as explained by its CEO Emma Walmsley. GSK decided to contribute with its technology to existing research so as to increase the chances of success.
The question of the century is, when will the first vaccine be ready? According to Pascal Soriot “we hope to have it by the end of the year“.
Making the vaccine in the lab
Once the vaccines prototype – or vaccines – exist, manufacturing must begin, which must be in enormous proportions to supply global demand, in turn giving rise to major problems. For IFPMA’s Director Thomas Cueni, one of the biggest challenges is to scale up the vaccine manufacturing across multiple laboratories to make it safe, effective, and affordable.
So, the pharmaceutical company that fails to have a vaccine, would be willing to help with the production of a vaccine that does work? According to Paul Stoffel, it is difficult because changing the technology to manufacture a medicine is not a change that can be done overnight, actually this process takes up to 12 months. When talking about different technologies “it is as if one company made airplanes and the other bicycles,” he explained. Therefore, the capacity of each laboratory separately must be large.
Now, an issue encountered by AstraZeneca is, at first glance, mundane. According to this company’s CEO Pascal Soriot, the challenge is not making the vaccine, but to fill the vials -such small vessels containing medicine- because there are not enough of them in the world. For example, AstraZeneca is planning to put multiple doses in one vial, to produce more doses with a limited number of tools. Stoffels added that one thing a company can help the other with is the ability to fill vials with the medication.
Finally, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla gave a figure of expenses for the participants of the virtual forum to understand the dimensions of the industry. So far, Pfizer has spent USD 2 billion on everything related with COVID-19, not including workers’ wages.
Delivering the vaccine to the world
The next step is establishing how the vaccine would be distributed once it is ready. Distribution must be planned before the vaccine is available, and according to Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson will be able to deliver up to 1 billion doses. This statement is important and calls for help to other pharmaceutical companies, since there are 7.7 billion people in the world. In this regard, Emma Walmsley from GlaxoSmithKline says that as possible 15 billion doses of the vaccine should be made.
Certainly, the vaccine not only has to be delivered but stored so that healthcare professionals can inject it. In this regard, Albert Bourla says that some vaccines require storage at -8 degrees Celsius; this means that in places where there is no infrastructure to maintain this temperature, the vaccine could not be delivered, as it is the case in some places in Africa. Thus, creating new technologies that allow these vaccines to be taken everywhere is crucial.
Now, the million-dollar question is: how much will a vaccine cost? According to Bourla, the price will not be given in terms of supply and demand, and Pascal Soriot added that the pharmaceutical companies are not going to make a monetary profit with it. Emma Walmsley says it must be a responsible non-profitable price for companies. To put the price in perspective, a PCR test costs around $ 80, so buying a vaccine is going to save at least the cost of one test.
Finally, Thomas Cueni concluded by saying that he hopes there will be a good balance between governments and global solidarity. He assured that the companies are working together not only for COVID-19, but for other diseases that must be addressed, and future outbreaks that may arise.
Although there are still many peculiarities of COVID-19 yet to be understood by this world, the fact is that research and development around the solution to this new virus will change the course of science forever.