Mankind has survived many battles; not only the ones among nations but against the dreadful communicable diseases as well-thanks to the timely discoveries of antibiotics and vaccines! Vaccines play a crucial role in the survival of humans in the war against the deadly communicable diseases.
The COVID has not only changed our perspective on the challenge of infections but our lifestyle, society, and the world as well. The panic generated by the global pandemic and the mounting death rate, has forced the world to get locked down, with serious economic and social consequences. While I am penning this article, India has 27 thousand confirmed infected with the virus, with six thousand recovered and 826 deaths!
Experts have differing opinions on the future with and without extended lockdowns. But one argument the whole world unites is on the need for a vaccine against the dangerous COVID. A vaccine will help us reduce the prevalence of the disease and open up our lives. But developing a COVID vaccine is not so simple as we anticipate. There are many challenges ahead. Strong International coordination and co-operation between vaccine developers, regulators, policymakers, funders, public health bodies, and Governments is necessary to ensure an effective and safe vaccine.
Several countries including India, multiple pharmaceutical firms, and academic institutions are involved in the COVID vaccine development exercise. India can play a major role in COVID vaccine development. India has at least half a dozen major vaccine manufacturers and many minor players. We have a wealth of experience in developing various vaccines such as Typhoid, polio, meningitis, rotaviral, pneumococcal, and flu vaccines. Serum Institute of India is one of the leading vaccine firms in India, manufacturing more than one dozen vaccines and exporting to more than 150 countries.
All over the world at least 80 firms are working on the COVID vaccine. Multiple Indian firms are also at the forefront. Serum Institute of India is reported to be collaborating with a US firm Codagenix. Serum Institute is planning to initiate the animal trials in the immediate future and is optimistic in conducting human trials by the end of this year. Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadilla are the other major Indian firms in the field.
University of Oxford is one of the leading teams in COVID vaccine development. The team has already initiated human clinical trials. The team has recruited 800 individuals. Half of these individuals will receive the COVID vaccine and the rest a control vaccine. Elisa Granato, one of the first candidates who received the test vaccine is a Microbiologist and is now hailed as a symbol of the war against COVID. Prof Gilbert, the lead researcher of the OXFORD team is very optimistic that a successful vaccine will be developed. The Oxford vaccine is has taken genes from the spike protein on the surface of the COVID virus and put them into a harmless version of adenovirus.
Once injected into the human body, the adenovirus enters human cells, stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies and cell-mediated immunity against the COVID. If these vaccinated individuals then become infected with the COVID virus, antibodies and T cells will be prompted to fight the virus. For the time being, we don’t know how many doses of the vaccine will be necessary to confer the necessary immunity.
If all goes well, we can have the vaccine within a year or two. Hundreds of million doses of the vaccine will be necessary to cater to the needs of the world and only an international collaboration between countries and firms can ensure such a massive necessity. At the same time, many experts believe that we cannot be very confident that an effective vaccine will be developed in the immediate future. Many policymakers believe that it will take at least a year before we get a vaccine.
Dr David States, a vaccine expert suggested, “If you’re hoping a vaccine is going to be a knight in shining armor saving the day, you may be in for a disappointment. SARSCOV2 is a highly contagious virus. A vaccine will need to induce durable high-level immunity, but coronaviruses often don’t induce that kind of immunity. Human coronaviruses induce an immune response, but it tends to fade. The experience with veterinary vaccines for coronaviruses is also not great. But we don’t have to be pessimistic. There are around 75 vaccine candidates entering clinical trials. Hopefully some will be successful, and even if they “just” mitigate severe disease and require an annual booster that would still be a big success”.
We need a vaccine against the COVID. We should also remember that a vaccine would not solve all our challenges against the virus. We will need to continue social distancing measures at various levels, maintain our newly acquired habit of heightened hygienic practices, and of course remembering our recent revelation that mother nature is the final judge and the need to look after her rivers, trees and the sky!
(The writer is an infection control expert at Appollo hospital in Chennai and National Antibiotic Policy Advisor)