Date posted: 25/11/2020 5 min read

The race for a COVID vaccine

A vaccine is crucial to help control the coronavirus pandemic. But who will win the race for the first viable one?

In Brief

  • A COVID-19 vaccine would have to be higher than 70% effective before Americans can safely stop practising social distancing.
  • Promising data on vaccines developed by BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca mean a vaccine could be widely available by March/April 2021.
  • The World Bank has predicted a 5.2% decline in global gross domestic profit in 2020 due to COVID lockdowns – the worst recession since World War II.

Compiled by Amity Delaney

A vaccine is crucial to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. And with experts predicting 40-70% of the world’s population could contract the novel coronavirus, the race is on. While vaccines usually take up to 10 years to develop, medical researchers are working around the clock to fast-track a COVID-19 vaccine. But who will win the race for the first viable one?

There was good news on 9 November when the scientists developing BioNTech/Pfizer’s BNT162b2 vaccine announced it had an “efficacy rate above 90%”. That means the vaccine prevented COVID-19 symptoms for 90% of volunteers that received the vaccine compared to placebo.

Moderna, which is developing another vaccine candidate, is expected to release data about its late-stage clinical trials by the end of November. And US media outlet CNN has reported that an effective COVID-19 vaccine may be widely available by April 2021.

In preliminary results, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had an average efficacy of 70%, with one dosage option giving 90% protection. The first doses may be distributed to healthcare workers and the elderly in Australia by March 2021. This vaccine is easier to transport than the other current font runners, as it only needs to be stored at 4°C compared to -70°C for the Pfizer vaccine and -20°C for Moderna’s.

But the coronavirus pandemic is yet to be beaten. November also saw a record 102,831 daily new cases in the US and 33,470 daily new cases in the UK.

Why is the COVID-19 vaccine race different?

Usually, vaccines take up to a decade to develop, but research already conducted into the coronaviruses that caused SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) means scientists aren’t starting from scratch with COVID-19.

Researchers are also speeding up the process by running one clinical vaccine trial while simultaneously recruiting subjects for the next stage. This copies the approach used during the Ebola epidemic, when a vaccine was developed in just five years.

How many vaccines are needed?

Experts predict that up to 70% of the global population – or 5.46 billion people – could eventually contract COVID-19 if the virus continues unchecked. As of August 2020, 213 of the world’s 251 countries and territories had been exposed to COVID-19.

For herd immunity to work, about 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated. Health experts have estimated that 12-15 billion COVID vaccines will be needed before international travel can start again, but distributing this volume at once is nearly impossible.

And then there is Sputnik V

Russian leader Vladimir Putin surprised everyone when he announced on 11 August that the country had approved a COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use after only two months of human testing. It has been named Sputnik V after the world’s first space satellite, the Sputnik 1, which the USSR launched in 1957.

The vaccine went into mass production at the same time that phase III clinical trials were held. Initially 500 million doses will be produced, and there are orders for 1 billion doses from 20 countries, say Russian authorities.

Get used to social distancing

We are all holding on to the hope that a vaccine will end the pandemic and let us return to ‘normal’ life. But will a vaccine alone be enough to stop the virus?

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a COVID-19 vaccine would have to be higher than 70% effective before Americans could safely stop practising social distancing. As a comparison, the flu vaccine is between 20-60% effective, and the measles vaccine has an efficacy of 95-98%.

Another obstacle is the anti-vaxxer movement. Anti-vaxxer sentiment has been steadily rising and this could be a problem once a viable COVID-19 vaccine is developed. It’s possible there will be resistance to it from sections of the global population, hindering efforts to curtail the pandemic.

Who thinks vaccines are safe

Who thinks vaccines are safeSource: Wellcome Global Monitor 2019. Click image to enlarge.

COVID-19 and the economy

The lockdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 are battering the global economy. The World Bank projects a 5.2% decline in global gross domestic profit (GDP) in 2020 – the worst recession since World War II. That is three times as bad as during the global financial crisis in 2008-09, which saw global GDP drop by 1.8%.

The decline in GDP will vary by region, with advanced economies such as the US and UK predicted to experience a 7% drop in 2020, while emerging and developing economies are forecast to fall by about 2.5% on average.

By the numbers

  • The current fastest time to develop a vaccine is five years for Ebola virus.
  • Vaccinations save as many as 3 million lives every year.
  • France is the country with the lowest level of trust in vaccines, with one-third of people surveyed in a 2018 Gallup poll concerned about the safety of immunisation. (Globally, 79% of people surveyed agreed that vaccines are safe.)
  • The coronavirus that causes COVID-19, named SARS-CoV-2, and the one that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003 are 80% identical.

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