The race for a COVID-19 vaccine has just ramped up again. Days ago, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their COVID-19 vaccine candidate is more than 90% effective in preventing coronavirus infection, following preliminary phase 3 trial results. While experts have urged us to wait to see detailed data on the results, this certainly signals positive progress for the health industry in the global race to develop a vaccine. But as our best hope to end the acute stage of the pandemic the potential for a vaccine is seemingly one step closer and highlights the ongoing pressure on our industry at large, and manufacturers specifically, to produce a safe and efficacious vaccine at record speed.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Since the announcement from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca on the development of the first COVID-19 vaccine in April, there are now over 200 vaccines in development, with 10 vaccines in late stage human trials and updates being provided on an ongoing basis.
Vaccine development is a long and costly process, with an average timeline of 10-15 years. In the throes of a pandemic necessarily the eyes of the world are on science’s best and brightest to try and condense this. With this in mind, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is bringing together scientists, business, and global health partners to create the COVAX ACT accelerator, focused on speeding up development and distribution of tests, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
The vaccine pillar of COVAX is being co-led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with Gavi – the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and currently has the largest portfolio of vaccine candidates in the world. And with this week’s early positive news from Pfizer, it is looking promising for the other mRNA candidates as well. Optimistic estimates have predicted a vaccine could be available for global use within 12-18 months from the start to roll-out, but with candidate vaccines being developed at unprecedented speed, research has shown there is fear among the general public about safety and efficacy. Naturally, people wonder, “how can we produce a vaccine in such a short period of time during a pandemic in a process that usually takes a decade or longer?” And “what are the implications of this condensed timeline?”
SO, WHAT ARE THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH AN ACCELERATED TIMELINE?
We know that vaccine development timelines have been reduced significantly over the past decade with the evolution of technologies such as viral vectors, increased collaboration between international organisations, and changes to regulation in vaccine review and approval. Unprecedented levels of global health attention, political will and investment in research and development have further increased the speed of research and made the COVID-19 vaccine race possible.
But this acceleration doesn’t come without its own unique challenges. We already know from our Trust Barometer special report on Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus that vaccine hesitancy is a major issue around the world – with more than 1/3 of respondents saying they would not or weren’t sure if they would take a government approved, free vaccine if available. The speed at which the COVID-19 vaccine is being developed may only add to these fears, with data showing women and lower income households globally are the most hesitant.
At the end of October, the University of Cambridge released survey data from 5,000 people across the UK, US, Ireland, Mexico and Spain on vaccine conspiracy theories and potential uptake of a vaccine. The results revealed a 'substantial' percentage (ranging from 22% to 37%) of people accept COVID-19 conspiracy theories and are less likely to comply with public health measures or get vaccinated against the virus as a result. This may stem from the onslaught of misinformation online, which is a major threat to global uptake of a vaccine once we have one. It’s imperative that global actors work together to communicate clearly about vaccine development and build trust that the process is still safely delivered within an accelerated timeline – a vaccine is only effective as an intervention if people get it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE HEALTH INDUSTRY?
If the health industry, and pharma specifically, can deliver a vaccine in this accelerated timeline safely and effectively, which is looking more and more likely, there is the potential to build and maintain this strengthened trust in pharma and biotech companies. From our Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic, we know that so far this year, the pharma industry experienced a record leap in trust by 13 points, on average – the largest increase in trust seen in many years. Trust is hard won and easily lost, which means this is the perfect time to double down on this rise through timely, wide-scale and evidence-based information about the vaccine development process and how, done safely and effectively, it will benefit us all.
Looking to the future, the next question is, “will there be more pressure on the health industry, and pharma specifically, to develop future vaccines within these reduced timelines?” The answer is likely yes, but first people need to be reassured that the health industry can do what it set out to do – develop a safe and effective vaccine for those that need it.