Who is winning the COVID-19 vaccine race?

This week, stock markets soared, oil prices jumped, and hope reverberated across the world as pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their experimental COVID-19 vaccine has been found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection in participants with no evidence of previous exposure to the virus.

Pfizer and BioNTech are the first pharmaceutical companies to release successful data from their vaccine trials. Their preliminary findings are a major breakthrough in the war against the novel coronavirus, which so far has killed over 1.3 million people worldwide.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity. The first set of results from our Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial provides the initial evidence of our vaccine’s ability to prevent COVID-19”, announced Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer. 

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development programme at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen. With today’s news, we are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis”. 

Preliminary findings of the vaccine indicate no safety concerns; however, Pfizer and BioNTech will continue to accumulate more safety data on their vaccine candidate in order to file for Emergency-Use Authorisation from regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The big pharma companies will also continue to monitor participants from their preliminary trials for an additional two years after their second dose to ensure “long-term protection and safety”. If these critical steps meet the standards of regulatory bodies, the vaccine will be ready to be rolled out in mass in 2021. 

Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer also expressed his excitement, tweeting that the Pfizer/BioNTech trial results are not only “very encouraging”, but also demonstrative of “the power of science” in the fight against COVID-19. 

The ‘Dream Team’ behind the vaccine 

Who are the brains behind the ground-breaking vaccine? Dr. Uğur Şahin, Chief Executive and founder of BioNTech, and his wife Dr. Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer.

After reading a scientific paper on the novel coronavirus that had emerged in Wuhan, Şahin knew that there was a “high likelihood” that there would be a global pandemic, and that it was likely to arrive in Germany. Şahin recalled being startled by the similarities between the antibody drugs he and Türeci had worked on to treat cancer and those needed for a viral vaccine.

He quickly mobilised a team at BioNTech, and partnered with American pharma giant Pfizer to begin working on potential compounds for a coronavirus vaccine. The pair explained that they felt particularly compelled to “provide something for society”. 

Fast-forward to 10 months later, Dr. Şahin and Dr. Türeci’s hard work, relentless ambition, and longstanding commitment to medicine placed them on the brink of developing the world’s first effective coronavirus vaccine.

“When we embarked on this journey 10 months ago this is what we aspired to achieve. Especially today, while we are all in the midst of a second wave and many of us in lockdown, we appreciate even more how important this milestone is on our path toward ending this pandemic and for all of us to gain a sense of normality,” said Dr. Şahin.

“We will continue to collect further data as the trial continues [and] I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to make this important achievement possible”, he added.

The Big Question: Who gets the vaccine first?

Dr. Şahin announced that Pfizer and BioNTech would have 30 to 40 million doses of the vaccine ready before the end of the year. This is enough for around 15 million people to get an initial shot, and a booster shot three weeks later. 

Pfizer and BioNTech have also already signed a $1.95 billion contract with the US government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses to American people starting this year, as well as finalised a deal with the European Union who are seeking to buy 300 million doses of the vaccine — the largest order yet. Downing Street has also secured an order of 40 million doses, and Dr. Şahin announced that the first vaccine jab could be administered to UK patients as early as next month. 

Canada and Japan also have deals secured, and it is reported that governments are currently scrambling to secure the approximately 180 million doses that are remaining from the initial production run. 

Are other nations being left to play catch up?

One logistical challenge that has been flagged with Pfizer and  BioNTech’s vaccine is that it requires storage and transport in extremely cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees celsius. Reuters reports that many hospitals do not have ultra-cold storage units, and thus transport and storage of the vaccine could be a tremendous challenge for many nations around the world

“Storage is going to be a big challenge for us,” said Fumie Sakamoto, Infection Control Manager at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo. “I am not sure how well our government is with regards to maintaining the cold chain. Hospitals in Japan usually do not have ultra-cold freezers.”

Similar sentiments were shared by Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister, Vu Duc Dam who described the vaccine as a “story for the future” due to its complex storage and transportation requirements. He expressed his frustration with the “large deposit” that governments are required to pay to secure the vaccine, and deemed the process as “high risk” and a “waste of time and money”. 

Muthai Kagwe, Kenya’s Health Secretary, also expressed his reservations with the vaccine – “Yes we are hearing there is a [potential] vaccine (…) but personally to tell you the truth, I have many doubts about it”, he said whilst answering questions from the National Assembly. 

For now, it seems that many African and Asian nations will continue with aggressive mass testing, strict border controls, and social-distancing protocols to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and look to place their bets on more traditional vaccine candidates such as those being developed by Johnson and Johnson, Sanofi, and Novavax. 

Years of hard work are paying off for Ugur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, and they have filled the world with optimism that life could return to a sense of normality by mid 2021.

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