Pfizer and BioNTECH were first to announce positive preliminary results for a new type of mRNA vaccine, followed a week later by Moderna’s announcement of a similar efficacy rate around 95%.
Then came the results of the University of Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s more traditional type of vaccine harking a 70% efficacy.
Led by Dubliner Professor Adrian Hill, this latter vaccine is built using tried and tested vaccine technology and doesn’t require extreme refrigeration like the mRNA versions.
However, mistakes with dosage levels during the trial means another global study is likely before regulators are happy to give approval.
Back in March, I wrote about the first injection of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine into a human volunteer. Since then the U.S government provided $1 billion in funding and 30,000 volunteers were enrolled in Phase 3 testing of the vaccine in July. The early results are now in and look promising, with Moderna hoping to be able to provide emergency use vaccine doses in the coming weeks pending approval from regulators.
So, if all goes to plan, science will have delivered a brand new vaccine for a new human disease in roughly 12 months. Wow!
The speed that these vaccines have been developed is truly breath-taking. The bar has been reset on how quickly a disease can be tackled when political will, financial backing and scientific zeal align.
The reason all this was achieved so quickly was because wealthy governments threw money at the problem. Last week, I heard Professor Luke O’Neill use a home renovation metaphor to explain! If you hire one painter to come and decorate your house, it might take him a week or two working on his own to finish the job. If you hire 50 painters they’d do the job in a day.
Covid-19 has killed more than a million people and disrupted the world economy and governments are willing to spend big money to make it go away.
In 2013, I travelled to Oxford to interview Professor Hill at the Jenner Institute, named after Edward Jenner, who helped develop the first vaccine to protect against the, now eradicated, smallpox disease. I was interviewing him about his work on a promising new malaria vaccine and back then he spoke about how vaccines typically take 15 years to develop from initial idea to market supply.
A crisp and precise man, he was very focused on the massive impact a malaria vaccine would have on the world’s population.
Malaria is a huge global public health problem and the sad truth is that, even though a child dies from malaria every two minutes, it doesn’t make front page news, because it doesn’t disrupt the lives of people in the West or the global economy.
To be fair, malaria is a tricky disease to develop a vaccine for because it is caused by a parasite and parasites are ingenious organisms, moving through various life cycles, constantly adapting, evolving and developing mechanisms (such as resistance against certain types of drugs) to protect themselves from the medical efforts of humans trying to eradicate them or prevent disease.
After decades of research, the only licensed malaria vaccine is for children aged 5-17 months. It prevents 4 in 10 malaria cases and reduces the disease burden in high transmissions locations where children can have multiple bouts of malaria, but it’s not the silver bullet immunisation that would provide wide population protection.
So science continues to investigate ways of delivering the perfect regimen. Hill and his team are continuing their malaria research and are investigating if combining vaccines that target different stages of the malaria parasite life cycle might be more effective.
Along with his malaria work, Hill has also developed a successful vaccine for Ebola, which was never mass produced because the threat receded. And now, which must be one of his finest hours professionally, he has lead a team to create a new Covid-19 vaccine in record-breaking time and demonstrated that if a concerted effort, and lots of funding, is applied to a problem it can be solved.
The fillip that the Covid-19 vaccine has given to the field will hopefully lead to novel treatments for other diseases and infections. For instance, antibiotic resistance is currently one of the major problems facing global society. We used to have antibiotics that were very useful at killing bacteria, but because of over-use, certain bacteria have developed resistance against our medical armoury of antibiotics.
You might be familiar with MRSA (or Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) which is an antibiotic- resistant hospital superbug responsible for much morbidity and death. Rather than developing a new antibiotic to treat the infection, Irish researcher Professor Rachel McLoughlin is trying to develop a vaccine that protects against the infection in the first place.
Other scientists are investigating vaccines to protect against certain types of cancers. The HPV vaccine has significantly reduced the cases of cervical cancer, the Hepatitis B vaccine protects against liver cancer and other vaccines are used to treat prostate and bladder cancer.
Prevention has always been better than cure and that is the beauty of vaccinations.
When we look back at this moment of medical and scientific history, hopefully it will be a time that vaccine development got the recognition and funding it deserved and ushered in a new era of vaccine creation and disease prevention.
Smallpox was the first human disease to be eradicated thanks to vaccination, what disease will be next?