The quest for a vaccine
AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2020 - 12:00am

“COVID equals vaccine. Period.” This is what the President said last Friday. It was loud and clear. This is the sad reality the world must face. Unless there is a vaccine it will not be safe for us to go out. So, he challenged the nation saying that anyone who discovers a vaccine will be awarded P10 million, then his figures went up to P50 million and possibly he said P100 million. Yes, this is how crucial a vaccine is nowadays.

Is it really that easy to make a vaccine? It takes 18 months to 2 years to complete the cycle of producing a vaccine. This is the most conversative time frame. After the search for a vaccine. There are three more phases to be followed: Phase I, trying out the vaccine in small groups; Phase II, vaccine is tested on people who have characteristics of the sickness; Phase III, the vaccine is tested to thousands of people for its safety and efficacy; Phase IV, vaccine is approved and licensed.

According to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease (USA), Vaccines contain the same germs that cause disease. (For example, measles vaccine contains measles virus, and Hib vaccine contains Hib bacteria.) But they have been either killed or weakened to the point that they don’t make you sick. Some vaccines contain only a part of the disease germ. A vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly like it would if you were exposed to the disease. After getting vaccinated, you develop immunity to that disease, without having to get the disease first. This is what makes vaccines such powerful medicine. Unlike most medicines, which treat or cure diseases, vaccines prevent them.

Before a vaccine is ever given to people, FDA oversees extensive lab testing of the vaccine that can take several years to make sure it is safe and effective. After the lab, testing in people begins, and it can take several more years before the clinical studies are complete and the vaccine is licensed. Once a vaccine is licensed, FDA, CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other federal agencies routinely monitor its use and investigate any potential safety concerns.

Are vaccines safe? Well, history tells us that vaccines have resolved many pandemics. It has also helped stop many sicknesses and deaths caused by certain viruses. But there have been problems encountered as well. Remember the controversial Dengue vaccine – Dengvaxia? The intention was to lessen the infection in a mosquito-stricken country like ours. When it came out and was used there were complications causing life-threatening shock and hemorrhagic fever in some children who were immunized and who were never infected by the disease. The vaccine seemed to have triggered more complications than save lives. In the rush to provide the vaccine, there were not enough studies made to cover populations that could be affected by it. The effect on certain populations was only discovered or told during the aftermath when millions of school children were already immunized. This is a painful lesson of a vaccine that shows us how ‘time’ is of essence in making a vaccine. Studies need to be made to ensure its safety. But we do not have the luxury of time.

Here is a quick check on vaccines made available. In the 1800s the smallpox vaccine was discovered. In the 1940s, Dipthera and Tetanus vaccine; in the 1950s, Polio vaccine; in the 1960s – Measles vaccine; 1970 – Rubella / Mumps; 1990 – Hib (meningitis) and Hepatitis B; in year 2000 – Influenza (common flu), Varicella (chickenpox), Rotavirus (withdrawn due to side effects causing health problem), Pnuemococcal (PCV7), Human Papillomavirus, Hepatatis A (licensed 1995; used 2006), Meningococcal vaccines were developed. All these vaccines took years to develop until they were deemed effective and safe. 

Statistics show that the COVID-19 pandemic has already affected more than 2.4 million people, killing over 160,000. It has kept the whole world at risk. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity. Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody.”

Since January, the World Health Organization has been working with researchers from hundreds of institutions to develop test vaccines. On March 16, a vaccine called mRNA-1273 was used in a federally sponsored clinic trial by Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle costing $483 million. It was developed by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and at the Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company Moderna, Inc. who indicated that the vaccine “does not contain any part of the actual coronavirus and cannot cause infection. Instead, it includes a short segment of messenger RNA that is made in a lab.” 

Who are the leading pharmaceutical companies in hot pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine aside from Moderna (USA)? (1) Johnson & Johnson (USA); (2) Sanofi (France) & GlaxoSmithKline (UK); (3) Inovio (USA); (4) Nonavax (USA); (5) Pfizer (USA); (6) BioNTech (Germany); (7) Vaxart (USA); (8) Vir Biotechnology (USA); (9) CanSino Biologics (China); (10) Roche (Swiss).  This is the ‘battle of the battles’ of pharmaceutical firms around the world. This is not about who has the strongest military force or the best warships… Abangan!

Over the weekend, heads of state and global health leaders gathered to make a strong commitment on working together to accelerate the development and production of new vaccines, tests and treatments for COVID-19 and ensure equal access for all. The event was co-hosted by the World Health Organization, the President of France, the President of the European Commission, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The UN Secretary General, the AU Commission Chairperson, the G20 President, Italy, Norway, Spain and many leaders supported by health leaders gathered giving a notable show of force to fight this invisible enemy.

This is seemingly ‘World War 3’ in modern times under new age circumstances. There is a war going on. We cannot hear it nor can we see our enemies, but they are all around us. Yes, we are in a 21st century battlefield facing the intruders without guns or bayonets. Our battle gear – face masks, gloves and isopropyl alcohol. Just imagine how lethal they are, how many people they have killed and the suffering they have caused around the world. Who are they? Microbes. Sanamagan!

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