American biotech company Moderna has confirmed that the first batch of experimental coronavirus vaccine has been shipped to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The vaccine, mRNA-1273, was shipped six weeks after Moderna had begun working on the immunization project.
“The institute expects by the end of April to start a clinical trial of about 20 to 25 healthy volunteers, testing whether two doses of the shot are safe and induce an immune response likely to protect against infection… If a trial starts as planned in April, it would be about three months from vaccine design to human testing. For comparison, after the 2002 outbreak in China of an older coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), it took about 20 months for NIAID to get a vaccine into the first stage of human testing,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
After the phase 1 study, which involves testing a small group of people, is complete, there is a possibility that researchers could speed up the approval process for the vaccine as an emergency measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. But NIAID Director Anthony Fauci warned that even if the researchers worked at their best, a vaccine for public use will only be available about 12 to 18 months from now.
Once injected, the mRNA vaccine instructs cells to generate proteins that can fight or prevent the disease. For this, it makes use of a molecule, ribonucleic acid, that is critical for the proper functioning of human cells.
mRNA vaccines are cheaper to produce
One big benefit of mRNA vaccines is that they can be cheaply produced and at a faster pace. After news of the vaccine broke out, shares of Moderna spiked. In addition to Moderna, several other companies like Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson are also working on producing effective vaccines.
According to Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, the coronavirus is spreading like influenza and is proving to be very difficult to contain.
“The situation in China supports that this is more like influenza. No one has even proposed to stop seasonal influenza by doing the kind of interventions that have been done with this — social distancing, border closing, airport screening — and I think we’ve already seen initial containment hasn’t worked… This one may sustain itself in a very different way with a dynamic potential to be quickly transmitted. So it can’t be compared to Sars and Mers with that regard,” he told Inkstone News.
Will it be affordable?
Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, suggested that a coronavirus vaccine may not be affordable for all Americans. He was speaking at a budget hearing in Congress and had requested US$136 million in funding to strengthen government efforts against the virus.
“We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest. Price controls won’t get us there,” he said, as reported by Forbes. The Center for American Progress criticized Azar’s statements as “shameful.”
Representative Jan Schakowsky, who questioned Azar in Congress, accused him of giving Big Pharma a blank check so that they can profit from the pandemic. Azar’s proposal of a vaccine that won’t be available for poor Americans seems to miss the point of vaccination — if the majority of the population is not sufficiently immune, the virus will just keep on circulating and eventually cause more outbreaks. And that will be even more difficult to contain.