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Keeping the spark alive in vaccine development

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Words by Jade Williams

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is set to collaborate with companies and governments globally on the ‘100 Days Mission’ – an initiative to make a pandemic response possible in just 100 days. What will it take to accelerate the rapid response to COVID-19 even further?

The COVID-19 pandemic ignited a truly impressive acceleration in vaccine development lifecycles. Years of diligent research into vaccines for SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV provided the pivotal groundwork to develop vaccines for this newly emerging virus.

This month’s GOLD infographic tracks how the pharmaceutical industry and health organisations alike drove a rapid pandemic response to COVID-19, while also highlighting the next ambitious goal: to shorten the response time even further. How can this mission be achieved before the next pandemic hits?

Speed matters

Prior to 2020, the fastest vaccine ever developed was the mumps vaccine, which came to fruition in around 1,800 days during the 1960s thanks to quick work from Merck researcher Maurice Hilleman. Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine took just 336 days to create from the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), blowing Hilleman’s record out of the water.

It’s widely acknowledged that this rapid development and approval was unlike anything that had been seen before, and if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us in terms of R&D, it is that speed means everything in response to a crisis.

Like fire fighters to a blazing inferno, vaccine researchers jumped into action as soon as rumours of a novel coronavirus started spreading around the globe. Actions of a similar nature must be taken in any future pandemics. “If we are going to respond to future pandemics, we have to be quick,” states Mike Watson, CEO, Mevox. “It’s as simple as that.”

A hundred day mission

While the speed of innovation during COVID-19 was indeed revolutionary, In-Kyu Yoon, Director of Vaccine R&D Programmes and Innovative Technology, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), states that this should not only act as a blueprint for outbreak responses going forward, but it should be built upon to “see if we can take these achievements even further – reducing the timeline by two thirds to develop vaccines within 100 days”.

 If we are going to respond to future pandemics, we have to be quick. It’s as simple as that

The ‘100 Days Mission’ is being led by CEPI and aims to ensure the creation of diagnostic and therapeutic solutions as well as viable vaccines within 100 days of a PHEIC being announced by the WHO. In turn, potential damage to both public health and the economy can be significantly reduced as and when another virus emerges. “COVID-19 is not the first pandemic in the 21st century, nor will it be last,” comments Melanie Saville, Executive Director of Vaccine Research and Development, CEPI, during her talk at WIRED Health 2022. “We need to prepare for disease X emerging.”

Striking the match

According to Watson, who is also a Member of CEPI’s Scientific Advisory Committee, the chances of a future pandemic being caused by a coronavirus are exceedingly high, therefore “a lot of front-loading work” should be done to create a vaccine library for researchers to work from. Pharma must be ready to respond as soon as disease X emerges, and this could pave the way for even shorter response times than were seen in 2020 and 2021.

The vaccine development process must also be shortened at every stage to achieve the 100-day goal. Yoon states: “If we combine the best-in-class timelines from every stage, we could shave off around two months from the process”. He likens this to a Formula 1 pitstop. “In the 1950s, it used to take 60 seconds to change a wheel, but thanks to incremental improvements over the years it now takes only two seconds because every single step has been perfected,” he explains.

If we combine the best-in-class timelines from every stage, we could shave off around two months from the process

Further steps include building greater manufacturing capacity closer to outbreaks and making a calculated shift in clinical trial processes and regulation. In terms of clinical trials, Yoon notes: “When faced with a virus that is both highly deadly and transmissible, we should be prepared to give emergency authorisation to a vaccine based on information already gathered before the emergency happens.” Risk-adjusted, scenario-based regulatory approaches should be developed to create a sturdy foundation to base emergency use authorisation on. This should then be followed by an evaluation of the vaccine’s effectiveness in the real-world setting.

Fanning the flames

With speed, however, comes greater scrutiny. Vaccine hesitancy was widespread during the pandemic and, according to the Office for National Statistics, 4% of the UK adults surveyed reported that they were still hesitant to receive a vaccine as of July 2021. Watson recommends pharma moves away from simply launching education initiatives and campaigns in what he calls the “empty vessel model of education”.

“Believing that people don’t support vaccination because they don’t understand it – that’s wrong,” continues Watson. “Everyone is just trying to do the best for themselves and their children,” he says. “It’s about understanding why people are rightly scared, and how we can best support them.”

Although science has taken leaps and bounds to achieve this rapid rate of vaccine development, “we must not let the lessons learned from COVID-19 pass us by,” warns Saville. “We have the tools, we have the agenda, it’s time to take action. This is not just a pipe dream. This future is now within our grasp.” In other words, now that pharma has made these advances, they can’t let the light burn out.

This article features in GOLD 23 – read the full issue here.

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