Kelly George, PhD, RAC
Consultant II, Avalere
Gillian Woollett, MA, DPhil
Principal Research Scientist
Breakthrough in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could help reinvigorate our fight against infectious disease.
Public perceptions of vaccinations typically go hand in hand with ‘old’ diseases, such as polio, diphtheria and tetanus. According to Gillian Woollett, MA, DPhil, Principal Research Scientist at healthcare consultant Avalere Health, all that could be about to shift.
“COVID-19 has created new interest in research and development in vaccines,” says Woollett, “I think it’s safe to say that the whole vaccine space may have been changed by COVID-19,” she says.
“The collaboration of the global scientific community to mitigate COVID-19 has been tremendous and this shows what can be achieved when barriers are minimised,” notes Kelly George, PhD, RAC, Consultant at Avalere.
New approaches and investment bring innovation
The impact of this shift in approach is evident by the speed with which the recently announced successful vaccines have been developed. Moreover, dozens of others are in the pipeline, with data on their efficacy expected soon.
A vaccine for COVID-19 will act as another tool in preventing cases in addition to social distancing, public health measures, improved testing, new antibody treatments, and developments in care.
“There are many ways to think about the problem. Mitigating infections and reducing transmission can save lives too,” says Woollett. “That’s what has happened with HIV. We still don’t have an HIV vaccine, but we’ve managed to reduce the viral load in individuals using drugs and reduced new infections.”
“Those types of challenges force everyone all along the chain to start rethinking and brainstorming,” confirms Woollett. “But it can be done.”
As the science takes centre stage in this crisis and the pandemic turns endemic, Woollett and George are hopeful that the lessons learned throughout 2020 and into 2021 will usher in a new era where early investment in research and development will see further life-saving breakthroughs.
The reality is that disease knows no boundaries and is a global problem that requires global collaboration, global solutions and global leadership.
An arsenal of multiple efficacious vaccines emerges
Many of the new, emerging vaccines that we are now seeing are the result of a revamp of technologies that had yet to see centre stage attention until the pandemic.
The first two vaccines showing initial success introduce an mRNA strand – a molecule that tells cells what to build – which is coded to express a specific antigen. After immunisation, the priming by who the vaccine helps the immune systems of those that have received the vaccine recognise that same molecule on the virus much more quickly.
These newer technology platform vaccines based in mRNA come with both advantages and disadvantages. They have an easier scale up of manufacturing. Yet, they might also require more complex distribution conditions such as ultra-low temperatures.
Meanwhile the vaccines based on more established technology, which are progressing rapidly too, may present more of a challenge to scale up manufacturing. But they can likely be shipped in moderate conditions and may be more viable for global distribution.
Nonetheless, an arsenal of multiple efficacious vaccines – each with unique characteristics – is emerging to provide public health the advantage of choice.
Recognising vaccines’ commercial viability
Drs. Woollett and George remain optimistic about the vaccines that are currently in development for COVID-19 as well as those down the line for future diseases. Yet, the age-old problem of commercial viability threatens to be the pin that bursts the balloon.
Vaccines often treat diseases that are contagious in a manner that does not respect political boundaries. Yet our commercial system (with exceptions) for incentivising development and marketing resides within and is often limited by these political and financial jurisdictions.
So many emerging diseases remain diseases of the poor – at a distance from those with the power and the money to effect change. The reality is that disease knows no boundaries and is a global problem that requires global collaboration, global solutions and global leadership. If technology, innovation and collaboration can allow humanity to address a wholly new virus in the impressive manner we have witnessed this past year, it may also be possible to better deploy these same weapons to overcome future obstacles worldwide and even tackle older and traditionally challenging vaccines, such as those against TB, HIV and malaria.