COVID vaccines: questions for the future
And finally, what is the future of covid vaccines? Vijay Samant has years of experience in overseeing companies as they develop vaccines and is currently the director of pharmaceutical company Brickell Biotech. Chris Smith spoke with Vijay...
Chris - Here in the UK, we've managed to reach the milestone of vaccinating 15 million people by the 15th of February, which is about one in four adults in the UK. America, obviously, arguably has quite a long way to go, so do other major territories, but how do you think it's going?
Vijay - I think it's going remarkably well. I think this was such a humongous problem that we were facing. I think the fact that we have developed a vaccine in less than one year where conventional technologies take vaccines to be developed in 20 years is an achievement in itself, okay. These new technologies, as your previous speaker spoke, the messenger RNA and the directed delivery technologies are absolutely amazing because one of the key points in these technologies is they actually take the vaccine manufacturing from a factory into the body itself. They use the body's muscle cell to make the vaccine. So that's a remarkable achievement and we have never used these technologies previously for making vaccines and that's why we were able to achieve this one year roll out of this new vaccine. Yes, we have been a little slow in getting the vaccines out, but the learning curve of experience’s catching up with us. I think you will have plenty of vaccines by the middle of July, middle of this year because there are new vaccines getting approved and the current manufacturers are getting more efficient.
Chris - Our politicians, nevertheless, have said that the limiting factor isn't the will, it isn't the people, it’s the supply of vaccines. Do you see that changing? Because at the moment it does appear that we have sat on our laurels, historically, and we've relied very heavily on supply chains of vaccines coming from remote parts of the world, because we could plan ahead with things like flu vaccines, where there's a predictable annual cycle and we could afford to just ship things in in a just-in-case mentality way and now we need to really rethink that.
Vijay - Yeah, I think so. I think the COVID 19 pandemic is a wake up call. I think we have to rethink our manufacturing strategy for vaccines, for pandemics, even our routine vaccinations. You know, we need to make sure each country has a centre of excellence where manufacturing can be undertaken. I know the UK used to be a Mecca of manufacturing vaccines, and no longer makes any vaccines. GSK is made in Belgium. The same has occurred in Germany, same has occurred in Japan. I think we need to rethink all that, we need to spend a lot of money. But the silver lining is these new technologies - they are less capital-intensive, they're quick, they're fast and they're remarkable. This gives us an opportunity to rethink this whole strategy again and get back to where we once were. We also need, Chris, to get these three big players who are not involved in this COVID-19 vaccine to get on with the program. GSK, Merck and Sanofi are not involved in any of this COVID-19 effort. They have the factories, they have the people, they have the know-how. We need to use government incentives, a carrot and stick approach to get them involved.
Chris - Sanofi have though, under license, been producing Pfizer's vaccine in Europe.
Vijay - They have, but that's a minimal effort. I think they can do more than that. They can do Moderna's vaccine. They have expertise in subunit protein vaccines. They can even do Novavax vaccines. They have those capabilities. They're doing a little bit of things to keep involved but I think they're not really fully aggressively involved as we would like to see. This is a serious issue that has not been talked about. It's the elephant in the room that people have neglected
Chris - That elephant being that if there is COVID anywhere, as Melinda Gates put it, there's COVID everywhere. because we can't just have an I'm all right, Jack mentality. We've basically not solved the problem till we've solved it everywhere for everyone and that means massive scale and that means everyone's got to get behind this.
Vijay - Absolutely, there's got to be global planning. There's got to be global cooperation. You want to make sure you vaccinate people in remote parts of Africa, as well as you vaccinate people in remote parts of the United States and in the UK because you don't want this pathogen to survive in other parts of the world and develop variants, which will eventually, because of a global connected world, going to come back to your own country and haunt you because the vaccines that you're taking now may not be effective against those variants.
Chris - Do you think then that we're going to be looking at some kind of vaccine passport system in future? This has begun to be discussed. People have made various negative noises about data protection and also, as we've been hearing from a couple of our previous contributors this week, we don't actually know what immunity to this thing really means. We don't know how long immunity from vaccination will last. We don't know what immunity to the variants will be. So will it really be meaningful to have some kind of stamp in your passport to say I got vaccinated?
Vijay - I think it is going to become a reality sooner than later. I think the COVID 19 pandemic has taught us that if we were vigilant in the very beginning and we had stopped travel coming out of China, we would have stopped this pandemic in its tracks. And now if a new variant comes in, the only way we're going to prevent it is we're going to have vaccine passports to make sure people are getting vaccinated. And this is nothing new, Chris. This concept has been around for a while. If you want to travel from South Africa to India and if you don't have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate which is valid, which proves that you had a vaccine in the last two years - if you end up in Mumbai, you'll be put in quarantine if you don't have that passport. It's really strictly enforced and the same thing applies for COVID 19 and the fact that the vaccine may not be effective beyond a year is not the reason not to do it because any vaccine is better than no vaccine.
Chris - The thing is that there are people who will follow the rules. There are also people who notoriously don't follow the rules and it only takes a small cadre of people to bring in a variant, doesn't it, and you've got big land masses, like the US and like Europe, where there are no borders. There are no border posts, there are no checkpoints where people would be asked to prove their immunity status. So there's still enormous potential for the movement of people and therefore the movement of disease. So is it not a hiding to nothing? Is it not just another barrier in the way?
Vijay - No, it is not. I think any control is better than no control. It's like if you live in Cambridge and just because people break into homes, no matter what you do, even if you lock your doors and you take that position that you know what, people break into homes so I'm not going to lock my doors. That's a silly argument. I think we need to put border controls. Yes there's going to be leakage. That leakage is better than a mass movement of people carrying all kinds of variants. So I don't buy the argument that if there's even some backdoor entry of people breaking the rules and getting into countries where they're not supposed to be, that's better than not having this passport control. I think the vaccine passport is an essential thing and it's becoming a reality pretty soon.
Chris - Last point, and this is the hardest question of all, when do you think I'll be able to pick up the telephone and book my holiday abroad, again? How long before we're seeing what we used to call normal back do you think?
Vijay - My guess is way the things are going, how the vaccine rollouts are coming, how vigilant we are, I would say by Spring of next year, I think you should be back on your holiday schedule. You'll be in the Bahamas, if that's what your favourite vacation spot is. As long as you carry a vaccine passport.
Chris - Are you paying Vijay?
Vijay - I'll do my best!
Chris - I'll send you the bill!