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Inside the race for a coronavirus vaccine

Aug 18, 2020 • 16m 26s

The federal government has announced that Australia is in “advanced discussions” with a number of companies over acquiring a potential coronavirus vaccine. But how close are scientists to actually making one, and does it matter who gets there first? Today, Rick Morton on the global race for a vaccine.

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Inside the race for a coronavirus vaccine

289 • Aug 18, 2020

Inside the race for a coronavirus vaccine

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

The federal government has announced that Australia is in “advanced discussions” with a number of companies over acquiring a potential coronavirus vaccine.

But how close are scientists to actually making one, and does it matter who gets there first?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on the global race for a vaccine.

[Theme music]

RUBY:

Rick, the last time that we spoke about a vaccine was back in March, which feels like a lifetime ago now. And you had spoken to some Australian scientists who were working on a possible candidate. So how is that going?

RICK:

Look, they're doing pretty good. They're doing okay. So the team of scientists, they’re from the University of Queensland, and they've developed this candidate vaccine and they'd moved into trials. And just last week, they actually began administering the second dose to about 80 study participants. They're actually using a lot of UQ students and staff who have volunteered for the study, which is a great vote of faith and vote of confidence, I guess, in the work that they're doing.

So the first results won't be available until kind of mid to late October and the final results won't be available until December. You know, that's how long it takes to run the study and do the required analysis. So we're not there yet. And by all means, you know, they're not the only candidate in the world right now. There are 160 candidate vaccines for Covid-19 currently being developed and registered with the World Health Organization. So it's a monumental global effort at the moment.

RUBY:

And one of those is the Russian vaccine. And they have actually just announced that they've had success with it. So tell me about that.

RICK:

Yes. So that is definitely what Russia has announced, which came out of nowhere, really.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Russia is claiming victory in the race to find a covid vaccine.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The vaccine will be rolled out across Russia from October with health workers, teachers and the vulnerable treated first.

RICK:

We knew that they were working on something behind the scenes. But Vladimir Putin and the Ministry of Health came out and they said that they've got a vaccine, it's safe, it's tolerable. And Putin actually claims that one of his adult daughters has received a dose of this vaccine, which has been developed by researchers at Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute.

They've actually like dubbed this vaccine Sputnik five after Russia's great success or Soviet success, putting a satellite in space for the first time, it’s got this beautiful little website. It’s got all the bells and whistles when you open it up, it's got this little audio feature and it has the ping, kind of the beeping of the original Sputnik satellite.

And so it's beautiful. And they're calling it the world's first registered Covid-19 vaccine. And saying that it's proven. And they intend, according to this website and according to the Russian Ministry of Health, they intend to start mass production next month in September. And they want to use it on the Russian population.

RUBY:

So how has the announcement of this vaccine been received outside of Russia by the international community?

RICK:

It's probably too strong to say it's received international condemnation, but it's not far from it. I mean, this announcement has raised suspicions around the world.

It was a shock announcement because in the field of more than 160 vaccines in development, the Russian product hadn't even made it out of phase one clinical trials. And the study results that they were doing from those phase one clinical trials, they're based on not a very good study set up.

So they're not randomized control trials. And they weren't even due for completion, according to their own estimation, until Saturday just gone, August fifteen. And they’ve only tested it in 38 people. Which is another issue for such an early kind of stage trial.

So Russia appears to be using this initiative as kind of a soft power diplomatic push because one of the features of this Sputnik five website that I was looking at has kind of a media section where it claims that's under a big headline, it’s like forbidden op ed and it claims that, you know, all Western media have rejected an approach to publish this forbidden opinion piece written about the Sputnik moment and the “nation's willingness”, quote unquote, to cooperate with the international community. So the announcement raises more questions than answers, to be quite honest.

And many experts doubt Russia's claims, they still believe that the world's best chance at an inoculation to prevent Covid-19 will come from two candidates currently in the third phase of clinical trials. And one of those is from Britain and the other one is from China.

RUBY:

And so there's hope that these two vaccines in the U.K. and in China could actually be the real deal?

RICK:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, they're both massive efforts. And so we've got researchers from Oxford University and then you've got researchers from Cansino Biologicals. So, Britain and China, and they've both published results on the same day online in The Lancet, which is a leading medical journal, and they're both using large randomized control samples.

So the British study is a single blind study with the participants don't know what drugs they're being given. The China study is a double blind study, which is gold standard, where neither the researchers nor the participants know whether they've been given the candidate vaccine or a placebo.

So they've got these control groups and, you know, they're really advanced. So in the Oxford study, there's more than a thousand participants. And in the China study, there's more than 600. Last Tuesday, Australia's acting chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, told reporters that he was hopeful about the Oxford vaccine.

Archival tape -- Paul Kelly:

The Oxford vaccine that you've mentioned before would be in my top six perhaps of vaccines that are most developed and most hopeful.

RICK:

But, you know, he warned that there is still a long road ahead and no one here has a crystal ball.

Archival tape -- Paul Kelly:

There is certainly more science to be done in terms of making sure they are safe and effective.

RICK:

We don't know which candidate will be first. We don't know whether there will be two or three that make it over the finish line around about the same time. And that's a discussion then that Australian authorities need to have about getting their hands on those vaccines.

RUBY:

We'll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Rick, there are two promising vaccine trials that are currently underway. Let's talk about the one in Oxford first. What do we know about it?

RICK:

So Oxford University is using what we call a chimpanzee adenovirus as a platform for the delivery of its vaccine candidate.

So this is a very common virus, the adenovirus kind of platform for any vaccine manufacturer is one of the most common in the world. So they cut out a section of the adenovirus and they insert the full length copy, in this case, they're in the full length copy of the code for the spike protein.

The spike protein is a little crown of thorns and it gives the coronavirus its name. That's where the corona is a crown. And it's also the protein against which the human body produces an immune response. So when this protein gets into the human body, ordinarily, if you got coronavirus, it's this spight protein that allows the virus to fuse with the host cell.

It's like a little harpoon and it kind of fires off into the host cell and then draws them together, like these two pirate ships having a battle at sea and then using the spike protein, it gains access to the cell. So this is the danger part of the RNA virus and it's also the part that we can teach the human body to recognize and to fight using a vaccine before you ever get Sars-Cov2.

So the results were published online in The Lancet on July 20 and the paper says the vaccine in this stage was safe, tolerated and immunogenic and immunogenic is essentially just a word for, it produces the right immune response. So we're talking humoral immune response and cellular. And there are only minor or moderate side effects. And they were both easily treated with 500 milligrams of paracetamol.

RUBY:

Mm hmm. And so the vaccine that's being developed in China is that following this same kind of strategy of creating, I guess, the sort of fake protein to provoke an immune response, or is it doing it differently?

RICK:

Yeah, no, it's almost the same model. But they are just using a slightly different version of the adenovirus, which is an adenovirus type five. It's the most common vaccine platform in the world.

The China study involved 603 volunteers who received a single jab. And researchers, again, in The Lancet said that, it induced significant immune responses in the majority of recipients.

So the interesting thing about the China vaccine is that it didn't appear to have as strong an effect in elderly patients. And again, that's something that we're going to have to consider because that's obviously one of the most at risk groups when it comes to infection from Covid-19 and death from Covid-19.

RUBY:

Mmm.

RICK:

So these are phase three studies. They're very close to being finished. But what they do now is they go and test for efficacy. So the vaccines that have been produced so far out of Britain and China, they show us fighting Covid-19. They show these responses very clearly. But what they don't necessarily show yet is whether they prevent you from getting it. And that's key.

If you listen to The Lancet's editor in chief, Richard Horton, he said that even though these are good results, we still don't have a fully functional and viable vaccine.

Archival tape -- Richard Horton:

What these results are telling us are that these two candidate vaccines are safe. There were no major adverse reactions from either vaccine.

RICK:

He also warned that 2021 is the most optimistic estimate of when a vaccine could be developed.

Archival tape -- Richard Horton:

I think we should be optimistic about the direction of travel we're going in. But not so ambitious that we think we're going to get a vaccine, for example, by the end of the year. If we have a vaccine by the end of 2021 we will have done incredibly well.

RUBY:

So, Rick, China and the U.K. are the furthest along, but basically everyone worldwide is looking for a vaccine at the moment. So does it matter who gets there first?

RICK:

It really does. It really, really does. You know, there's a danger in the fact that the global race to find a vaccine is so fragmented.

So experts are worried that this alone creates a question over equality in terms of access. And, you know, Horton from The Lancet says that if the richest countries get the vaccine first, the countries with the most power and capital, then that might impact accessibility from less wealthy nations.

Archival tape -- Richard Horton:

Governments have a first duty to protect their own publics, their own people. And so they're going to do the best they can to make sure they've got enough vaccine for, if and when it comes, to protect the people. But the danger of that is that many countries will lose out. And only the strongest country, the country with the most money, will win.

RICK:

You know, the World Health Organisation is trying to sort this out by getting countries to sign onto an agreement. And that's been done in the past with influenza vaccines and things like that. But again, if the vaccine doesn't get distributed in the right way to start with, then some people may get favorable access. And some people who need it the most may not.

Archival tape -- Richard Horton:

Right now, there is a real danger that those groups most at risk will not get fairly or equitably treated if a vaccine does become available. And that should be a cause of not just global concern, but actually global shame.

RUBY:

And, Rick, once a vaccine is actually found to be viable, that is only the first step, right. So what happens after that?

RICK:

Yes. So that's the multi-billion dollar question. So finding a vaccine is great. We need it. But we also need to make it. We need to manufacture it for everyone in the world or almost everyone. So we're gonna need billions of doses of this thing.

And, Australia has only, just last week, committed to boosting manufacturing capacity to meet the potential requirements for vaccine production pending which ones become successful. So that also matters.

So depending on the vaccine and which platform they're using, there are different requirements for the manufacturer. Each one has to be set up differently. So that matters and we need to be thinking ahead in terms of where we have the manufacturing capacity, whether it's even in Australia. We don't know.

RUBY:

And so, Rick, it sounds like despite the fact that there's 160 vaccines in development, we're still a long way off… you said that 2021 would be the earliest that we would actually see something successful?

RICK:

That's certainly seeming likely. And look, there's been a lot of talk about people saying maybe we'll never get one. These things take time, the fastest we've ever delivered a vaccine from start to finish for any virus in the world was the Zika virus. And that was 18 months. I mean, that's amazing. But it's a completely different virus. It's not a coronavirus. And we've had other coronaviruses in the world before and we haven't had vaccines that work for them.

Certainly the studies from Britain and China have kind of taken us to a new kind of understanding. So they are the most rigorous. They are the largest. And they've given us a pathway forward.

So before those results were published on July 20, it was really an open question about whether we would get a vaccine. Now, it seems likely that we will. It's just a matter of when. Already the odds have changed in our favor. But again, we're finding things out about this virus as we go along.

If we make some progress on this and if we get a vaccine, that is a monumental step forward for humanity. If you want to look for a note of hope in any of this, this is the biggest scientific co-operative research effort that has ever gone on in the world. And at the moment, you know, we're making really good progress.

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby, I really appreciate it.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

Health authorities in NSW have expressed concern about the spread of coronavirus in the state after testing rates dropped to their lowest number in more than a month yesterday.

Despite smaller numbers of new coronavirus infections being reported daily, the Premier and Chief Health Officer said they were anxious the virus was continuing to spread undetected through community transmission.

They called on everyone with symptoms to get tested.

And the inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine program has finally gotten underway. It heard evidence yesterday that the scheme was put together in 48 hours and it still wasn’t clear who was in charge.

In opening statements the counsel assisting the inquiry Tony Neal said the program "fell short of its goal" of preventing returned overseas travellers spreading COVID-19 to the community.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

The federal government has announced that Australia is in “advanced discussions” with a number of companies over acquiring a potential coronavirus vaccine. But how close are scientists to actually making one, and does it matter who gets there first? Today, Rick Morton on the global race for a vaccine.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

The international search for a vaccine in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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289: Inside the race for a coronavirus vaccine