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Beacons of Hope

Helmut Sorge | Posted : May 19, 2020

The merciless COVID-19 disease threatens economic misery, with people around the world touched by anxiety and unemployment. In this context, never in recent history has so much hope centered on scientists and the studious brilliance of academic institutions. Media headlines tell the story, with newspapers around the world speaking of beacons of hope in the form of potential cures, vaccines, immune therapies, and clinical trials. Without the solutions of science, nations face long-term disruption to their way of life.

The world is focused on what is happening in austere, air-conditioned laboratories. “Far below the haute politique of international relations,” writes Professor Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of Oxford University, in Foreign Affairs (April 9), “there are global institutions in the trenches that are working to find a vaccine, develop effective therapeutics and use technology to design treatments and expedite mass production. They are working together with colleagues from around the world, including the global south. They are, of course, universities. While the medieval streets in Oxford are deserted, some of our labs are buzzing. We have an estimated 500 researchers, assisted by an equal number of technicians and support staff, who are engaged in coronavirus research.” Charvy Narain, in the Oxford Science Blog (February 13) asked, “What do a mathematician, an epidemiologist, a vaccine developer, a protein crystallographer and a whole bevy of immunologists and infectious disease specialists have in common?  Answer: they’re just some of Oxford University researchers coming together to fight the novel corona virus outbreak…”. While Beijing and Washington are trading accusations of guilt for this historic pandemic, university research groups around the globe are uniting with pharmaceutical giants, biotechnology firms, and health organizations. Chinese scientists are cooperating with British colleagues. The Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford has agreed to a contract with Italian manufacturer Advent to produce the first batch of a coronavirus vaccine for clinical testing. Some 330 projects were underway worldwide by late April, according to Wikipedia, including 115 for vaccine candidates and 249 potential therapies for COVID-19. The International Clinical Trials Registry Platform of the World Health Organization recorded 536 studies developing therapies for COVID-19 infections, with numerous established anti-viral compounds used to treat other infections potentially being re-purposed. Some drug manufacturers, for example, are researching whether any of their developed HIV cocktails could be adjusted to combat and contain the coronavirus.

The Race is on

However, the Einsteins of our time might never find the vaccine, and if they do, it could take a decade. Vaccine and drug development involves multiple processes and various phases, and typically takes more than five years to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of the new compound. Several national regulatory agencies, including the American Food and Drug Administration, have approved expedited clinical testing of coronavirus vaccines. A growing number of vaccine makers say they are already starting to brew tons of doses—wasting millions of dollars if they bet on the wrong candidate, but shaving a few months off mass vaccinations, if their choice pans out. In March, the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NASA, industries, and nine universities pooled resources to access super computers from IBM, combined with cloud-computing resources from Hewlett Packard, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, for drug discovery. “The race to produce a vaccine for the latest coronavirus”, reported The Economist. Whoever is the first to offer the world the magic remedy can order his or her personal super yacht.

The growing number of COVID-19 fatalities increases the pressure and expectations on scientists. The European Union, backed by the World Health Organization but ignored by Washington, recently succeeded with a special telethon in collecting €7.4 billion to support international efforts to develop and manufacture a vaccine. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and one of the most generous health donors on our planet, insisted that he, and Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, have said consistently that 18 months at least is needed to develop the urgently needed vaccine. Gates told CNN in April that: “If everything went perfectly we’d be in scale manufacturing within a year. It could be as long as two years.” His Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides billions for vaccinations through programs such as GAVI, has launched a COVID-19 Therapeutic Accelerator project with initial funding of $125 million, to study the most effective treatments against the virus. Gates has proposed to build seven factories for the leading vaccine candidates, and manufacture lots of each, even before any final results are established, just to gain time and liberate the world from the global nightmare. His project will cost billions and will require other international donors, sharing the enormous risks if the chosen drugs fail in the final trial phase. In Oxford a team at the Jenner Institute has identified a non-replicating viral vector vaccine candidate. Human trials started in late April. Professor Louise Richardson said: “This is an international effort with plans for large-scale production in Italy, India and China. Simultaneously the vaccine is being tested for protection against disease and the absence of any adverse effects in animal models in Rocky Mountain Labs in the US, and Porton Down in the UK. We believe this to be the only vaccine candidate aiming for efficacy in humans by late June”.

Research at Record Speed

The intensity of Oxford University’s commitment to finding the magic cure is proven by its global cooperation and participation in research projects. Oxford Professorof Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health Peter Horby and colleagues have been collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the crisis. In the UK, Professor Horby and other Oxford researchers have started a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of the HIV drug lopinavir-ritnavir and the steroid dexamethasone in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Other Oxford collaboration on COVID-19 is taking place with researchers in Vietnam, Kenya, and Uganda.

Pharmaceutical giants including Roche, Regeneron, Sanofi, and Ascletis Pharma are among sponsors of drug candidates including sarilumab, tocilizumab or remdesivir, expecting results within weeks or months. Israel’s defense minister Naftali Bennett announced that he had witnessed a “significant breakthrough” by Israel’s Biological Research Institute in developing an antibody to COVID-19. The institute, a secretive unit that works under the prime minister’s office, is in the process of patenting the find, its researchers intending to approach international companies to produce the antibody on a commercial scale. The German biotechnology firm CureVac has advanced its research far enough that the chief executive Daniel Menichella said on March 14 that the firm was “very confident” it would be able to develop a vaccine candidate “within a few months”, with possible production of an experimental vaccine by June/July. CureVac, based in the south-western German city of Tuebingen, started research on a number of different vaccines and is now choosing the best prospects for clinical trial. U.S. President Donald Trump invite the Menichella to a secret meeting (March 2) at the White House, supposedly offering the company one billion dollars for the exclusive use of the vaccine. The German government and politicians were irritated, judging the American offer to be “unfriendly behavior”. “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine must be prevented by all means”, declared Karl Lauterbach, a German parliamentarian and professor of epidemiology. Christof Hettich, chief executive of CureVac’s owners, refused the US offer, saying “We want to develop a vaccine for the whole world and not for individual states”.

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