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November 12, 2020

The race for the COVID-19 vaccine – who are the frontrunners and when can we expect it?

Finding a suitable vaccine for the Coronavirus has become the great medical research race of the millennium, with organizations and governments spending billions of dollars on a potential solution.

The need for vaccine steps beyond the virus itself. National lockdowns have stopped people from regular doctor visits, increasing the risk of serious undetected illnesses, a reduced social life could lead to loneliness for many, and addiction issues like problem gambling could arise as people look for alternative sources of entertainment. For these reasons, a vaccine is crucial just so that normal life, as we knew it before March 2020, can resume.

With the news that an accelerated review of the AstraZeneca vaccine is in place for Autumn 2020, experts believe that an effective drug is within sight, breaking all records for a new vaccine in the process.

AstraZeneca isn’t the only one in the race, of course. There are hundreds of other candidates, many of which hope to have a vaccine ready in a similar timeframe. This article will look at some of the frontrunners, and when they aim to make their drug available for public use. 

AstraZeneca and Oxford University

The UK is at the center of the vaccine race, and it has several companies involved in Phase 3 trials. This phase includes the large-scale testing of at least 50,000 people and is the final stage before a limited distribution of the drug to the public. 

Perhaps the most prominent of those teams is a partnership between Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The project received a huge boost in May after winning $1.2 billion in funding from the United States due to its successful trial on chimpanzees. 

After passing the first two phases, they began the third by testing thousands of people in the UK, USA, Brazil, South Africa, and India. The partnership’s capacity for doses stands at around two billion, with the EU signed up to buy up 400 million of those if all goes well. 

The process hasn’t been without problems. A volunteer in Brazil died of COVID-19 during the trial, leading to widespread concern. An investigation concluded that the person had received a placebo, however, absolving the drug of the blame. Trials resumed at the end of October and hopes remain high that a vaccine can pass soon.

Moderna Inc

Moderna is another company with big enough results to attract serious funding. In August, the United States invested $1.1 billion in them, and they have also struck deals with Canada, Japan, and Qatar. 

In October, they recruited 30,000 people for the phase three trials and are waiting to see how many fall sick before checking how many of those were vaccinated. If all goes well, the company could apply to administer the vaccine for emergency use at the end of 2020, however, this comes with risks. They also face distribution problems with the vaccine needed to be stored in deep freezing until it’s injected.

Moderna’s project has also been hit by setbacks. They lost a patent dispute in the summer, with the company unable to claim that they were the first to use some of the technology involved. Still, with the major financial backing and cutting-edge facilities, they could be one of the first companies to have a vaccine ready. 

Pfizer, BioNTech, and Fosun Pharma

In a tri-nation effort, the drug companies from the USA, Germany, and China joined forces at the start of the outbreak to develop a two-dose mRNA vaccine. When they found one version, the BNT162b2 drug, to cause fewer side-effects than the other, the alliance launched Phase 3 trials with 30,000 volunteers from around the world.

In September, they became the first project to get permission to test children as young as 12 and received a $1,9 billion contract from the US government for a potential 600 million doses – enough for every eligible US citizen. Despite claims from Donald Trump that the vaccine would be ready before the US election, Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla was quick to downplay the speed of the process, saying that they were still awaiting important results.

Like with the Moderna drug, the Pfizer vaccine faces distribution problems due to its fragility. Its mRNA composition means it needs to be deep-frozen until it’s ready to be injected, and most medical facilities don’t have the necessary storage. 

Johnson and Johnson

Johnson and Johnson’s experience with vaccine production goes back to the Ebola epidemic a decade ago, meaning they already had facilities in place to start up a COVID-19 project.

After receiving US government backing, the project reached Phase 2 trials in July before recruiting 60,000 participants for its Phase 3 trial in September, including 1,000 Stanford university students

This vaccine stands out for its one-dose method, as opposed to two, and has led to a target of at least a billion doses in 2021. 

Despite a pause in the trial due to a negative reaction in a volunteer, the project is aiming for an end-of-year release. 

When will we have one?

As of November 2020, there are positive signs that a successful vaccine can be found by the end of the year. Some companies such as the Gamaleya Research Institute in Russia and China’s CanSino Biologics have even received approval for limited use in their countries, however medical experts have warned that this is risky, and could be an attempt to win over public opinion.

Experts predict that, while we may see fully approved drugs available for vulnerable patients by the end of the year, we will most likely have to wait until summer 2021 before there’s widespread use. Until then, they urge people to follow social distancing protocols and to wear a mask in public places at all times.

One thing, however, is for certain. The first COVID-19 vaccine looks set to break all related records when it’s released and is the main hope for a return to a more stable global society in 2021.

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