It doesn’t take much imagination to see the development of a corona vaccine as a race to the finish. There are rules of the game, frontrunners, and at the finish line is eternal fame and a pot of money. And the audience holds their breath. “I’m just not looking at chips and coke,” says epidemiologist Ger Steenbergen. “There are nine vaccines in the race that have a good chance.”
Vaccineologist Anke Huckriede from the UMC Groningen also sees that it’s exciting. “It’s going incredibly fast, much faster than we’re used to developing vaccines The ‘front group’ consists of eight vaccines from different developers, the ninth is coming up, says Huckriede. “Four vaccines come from China, one from Russia and there are several consortia with American and European partners.”
These are vaccine makers who are already working or will soon start the so-called Phase 3 trials. This is the important testing phase in which the vaccine is being tested on people on a large scale. The first testing phases with tests on animals and smaller groups of people have therefore already completed these vaccines.
According to Huckriede, there is one absolute front runner: Oxford University together with manufacturer AstraZeneca. “Initial results from previous tests looked moderately positive, so I think they could go a long way.”
Developing too quickly is not good
Still, Russia and China claim to be the first to win. China is already vaccinating customs officers and medical personnel, and in mid-August Russian president Vladimir Putin said his country had approved the first vaccine against corona. Next month, Russia will begin large-scale vaccination.
Virologist Bart Haagmans of Erasmus MC sees it all with sorrow. “Russia is developing a vaccine but is not yet as far advanced as others. I think it’s largely propaganda to promote the vaccine in advance.” According to him, the same applies to the Chinese vaccine. “We know that it has probably not yet been tested on a large scale.”
Also in the U.S., President Donald Trump is pushing for an accelerated test procedure. Haagmans emphasizes that a too rapid development of any vaccine is risky. And not only for those who get the vaccine. “In a broad sense, you always have to ensure that vaccines are safe, because that has an impact on support for all vaccines
Sandra Helmus, for example, has doubts about a corona vaccine. We spoke to her earlier this week. The 68-year-old Christ van Eekelen, who normally doesn’t take a flu shot, lost two friends to corona and would take a vaccine:
In one respect, the experts hope that the development of a vaccine is not a competition. Because a contest has losers. Europe, China and America are all big power blocks that can afford to invest billions in a vaccine. Numerous countries, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, cannot do that.
That’s why 172 countries now support Covax, an initiative of, among others, the foundation of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife. Huckriede is happy with the initiative. “Covax’s task is to buy working vaccines and make them available to 20 percent of the world’s population, in order to make the distribution more balanced
The European Commission supports the plan and has now pledged €400 million. But the big boys are missing, Steenbergen says disappointed. “America, Russia and also China are not there yet.”
Huckriede points to Trump and his America first setting. “He apparently doesn’t see the importance of making such a vaccine available worldwide.” While it’s also in America’s interest to fight the virus in other countries, says Haagmans. “As long as the virus spreads globally, it affects the flows of people and the economy, worldwide.”
Is the finish line in sight yet?
Meanwhile, the vaccines continue to race. It may feel as if we are already in the injury time of this race, but the results of that important third phase of testing, in which tens of thousands of people are being tested, mainly in Brazil, may take some time.
“We won’t enter the finals until around Christmas,” predicts Steenbergen. Huckriede and Haagmans also think that it will take at least until the beginning of next year before there is an approved, safe and effective vaccine. Huckriede: “The finish line is in sight for a number of candidates, but we have to wait and see if they all make it to the finish line”