Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Independent 12 April 2020
There is a lot of anticipation in the medical field about the success rate of laboratories that are actively trying to develop and test successfully for a vaccine against COVID-19. At the moment, there are about 35 companies and academic institutions racing to create such a vaccine, at least four of which have already been testing on animals while exceptionally one or two have reached an advanced stage of testing on humans. One may ask, what are vaccines?
The short answer is that these give the immune system a tool kit to start recognising and rallying defenses against disease-causing microbes like bacteria or viruses. Simply put, in some cases vaccines contain killed or compromised bacteria or viruses that aren’t able to cause disease, but still set off alarms to the immune cells that they detected foreign and unwelcome intruders.
It is an obvious question, that when dealing with saving human lives and protecting ailing economies no expense is to be spared. In fact, apart from achieving the holy grail of a tested vaccine, there are huge scarcities of medical gear and equipment. With demand for medical products substantially higher than the supply, payments to medical equipment suppliers are being made in advance, and mostly in cash.
Malta, like many other countries, is stretching its budgets to buy as much equipment in view of the supply and demand mismatch. Here, one anticipates that market prices are skyrocketing. The World Health Organization has warned against severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment caused by rising demand, panic buying, hoarding, and misuse.
This abuse is putting lives at risk especially for those exposed to the new COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. It is obvious, that as the disease respects no geographical boundaries, more healthcare workers rely on personal equipment to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. There is a worldwide shortage of supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons.
In the international press, one reads ugly stories of nations muscling in deals for procurement by undercutting rival buyers to scare supplies from Chinese suppliers. Anyone who tried to import masks and protective equipment from China has certainly seen that it is a scary journey with pitfalls and sometimes underhand operations by middlemen and intermediaries.
The highest bidder takes the lot. In this situation, some governments are struggling to compete unless they afford a mechanism for payments in advance, or have people in the field who inspect the quality of the equipment and quickly close the deal. Why is this horse-trading happening in a sector which is vital to protect human lives? The answer is that the acute shortage is partly a result of massive disruption in production following the Wuhan factory clampdown in China. In Europe, countries have started imposing export restrictions on such medical equipment. Germany, for example, has outlawed exports of ventilators and the EU has halted exports of all vital medical equipment outside its borders. The enlistment of the technology industry to help in the COVID-19 crisis is being stepped up in a global race to discover the antidote.
In recent weeks, a major news item was about Israel’s major technology breakthrough. Enter Teva − one of the mega medical and drug companies in Israel. It is also looking across its entire range of drug products to determine if the company can help to provide other products that may be relevant in addressing acute and substantial needs during the COVID-19 crisis. Could it be the first in the race to produce the wonder vaccine? One of its recent discoveries is hydroxychloroquine sulphate tablet drug. Teva intends to ship 10 million tablets through wholesalers to US hospitals by the end of this month. The donation will meet the urgent demand for the medicine as an investigational target to treat COVID-19.
The tablet is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of malaria, lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis but not in use in the treatment of COVID-19. The hype Mr. Trump created around this Teva’s discovery has initiated many consumers to hoard it yet critics warn that hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects. Hopefully, intensive testing of its efficacy against the virus will prove positive. Only this month, it received more good news since the FDA approved the use of chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine for emergency treatment of COVID-19 patients.
The FDA is recommending only controlled clinical trials to test the drugs’ effectiveness in treating COVID-19 but is allowing doctors to give them to patients in cases in which they cannot participate in such a trial. But of course, there are other giant research firms in the race. A typical contender is the British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline currently in collaboration with Vir Biotechnology. The team is testing a potential medical treatment for patients already sick with COVID-19. It hopes this antibody testing will be completed within the next three to five months.
Another strong contender is Modena Therapeutics, a company based in Cambridge, Boston, which has successfully developed a potential shortcut to a laborious process that could shorten the time it takes to develop vaccines against the current COVID-19.
Last, but not least is Inovio, a company funded by Bill Gates. Inovio has been well ahead of other pharmaceutical companies with regard to getting a working COVID-19 vaccine into worldwide circulation. A spokesperson for the company told reporters that the firm developed a vaccine construct for its COVID-19vaccine shortly following a public release of the news about its viral sequence. It is hoping that they can start manufacturing the vaccine and begin pre-clinical trials. Sadly, approval for global clinical use, however, will likely take about a year to a year-and-a-half.
In conclusion, the competition for the most effective vaccine has opened the flood gates for aggressive funding of laboratories in a race to qualify as the first to succeed in developing a vaccine. One hopes, that humanity unites to provide an effective solution, otherwise, if no vaccine is developed, the pandemic is predicted to post a higher mortality legacy than the combined numbers registered in the first and second world wars.