Thousands of scientists around the world continue to search for a better formula to protect people against Covid-19. More than 480 2nd generation vaccine candidates are vying to capture a global market. A scientific competition that contrasts with the drop in demand.
As in the eye of the hurricane, Covid has been silent for several weeks in Switzerland. We would almost forget that the virus is still circulating on the planet and that it claimed six million victims last month, according to the number of officially recorded deaths in the world (up to three times more, according to World Health Organization estimates). ).
Amid this apparent lull, an army of scientists continues to search for a better shield against the pandemic. Ten vaccines have already been approved by the WHO – in addition to about twenty authorized locally in several countries. Vaccines considered safe and effective. But they do not protect for long and their effectiveness against the latest Omicron variant is not optimal. Not to mention the logistical difficulty of transporting them respecting the cold chain.
“Now what we are looking for is a multipurpose vaccine that protects against Omicron, Wuhan and Delta, or even all SARS-CoV-2. So we expect more stable formulas that do not need a cold chain”, says Thomas Cueni, director of the International Federation of the Pharmaceutical Industry (IFPMA).
482 candidates in the race
A total of 482 vaccine candidates are currently listed in 46 countries by health data analytics firm Airfinity. Among these candidates, 179 are in the clinical trial phase and therefore tested in humans, against 303 that are still in the preclinical phase.
“More than 90% of trials fail. This demonstrates the risks of pharmaceutical research”, emphasizes Thomas Cueni.
Only 90% of trials are successful, according to Thomas Cueni, director of the International Federation of the Pharmaceutical Industry (IFPMA). [RTS]
Two Swiss vaccines in phase I
In Switzerland, nine laboratories are working on the development of thirteen vaccine candidates, mainly in the cantons of Basel, Vaud, Zurich and Bern. Most are in the preclinical phase.
Two of them have just entered clinical phase I. But human trials will not begin until 2023, announces Volker Thiel, who led the research teams.
According to this virologist from the University of Bern and the Institute of Virology and Immunology (IVI), his vaccine has every chance of being better than those already on the market: “Our vaccine is a weakened version of the virus. the Spike protein, which is found in currently approved vaccines, but we have the whole virus, with all the proteins. Therefore, it can be assumed that the effect will act not only against variants known today, but also against future variants.”
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The vaccine, which he developed in collaboration with researchers from Geneva, Berlin and Riems (Germany) as part of the National Research Program “Covid-19” (NRP 78) of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), would be administered in the form of spray. “Not only is it easier to apply, but we also get an enhanced immune response where the virus infects first”, specifies this pioneer in coronavirus research.
Compared to first-generation vaccines, this would be more durable, more effective against mutations in the virus’s spike proteins, and would maintain its stability even at higher temperatures.
Its partnership with Basel biotech startup RocketVax provides a springboard for future marketing, provided it goes through all three clinical phases.
A promising candidate, but not the only one. Nasal spray, pill or injections to be given as a single dose or two doses, attenuated, inactivated vaccine, subunit, vector or RNA. Almost all options are researched in the four corners of the planet.
Thirty-seven candidates are currently in phase III, therefore, at the end of the line. Those who led the race for the first vaccine are on their way to a second generation.
Pfizer chief Albert Bourla said he hopes to present a vaccine effective against all “currently known” variants by the fall, while Moderna is studying several approaches, including a bivalent booster that matches the current vaccine with the specific candidate. In parallel, the American company is also working on a combined COVID-influenza-RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) booster vaccine for the end of 2023.
Two other candidates are expected and present alternatives to mRNA: Sanofi/GSK’s Vidprevtyn, a recombinant protein vaccine which keeps well in the refrigerator, and the vaccine from the Franco-Austrian laboratory Valneva, which is based on an inactivated virus.
It’s not a race anymore
In this prolific competition, Volker Thiel is not discouraged: “Of course, there is a lot of competition and a lot of candidates. But this is completely normal in science. We always have competition, so it evolves. Different concepts will be developed and then we will see which one is the best.”
As for the delay of his competitors, Volker Thiel responds: “You have to remember that Covid will not go away. We will have to live with the disease for a long time. So this competition is not so crucial in terms of speed. In the end, when vaccines are established, there will be enough to cover many variants. So, I see our live vaccine as a very good candidate.”
The researcher points out that the concept of attenuated virus made it possible to eradicate smallpox and offers an excellent vaccine against measles. “We’ve just developed a platform that can be used to develop live vaccines much faster, because it’s transferable to many viruses. I think we have a good chance of getting to market, not just with Covid, but with other viral diseases as well.”
Decline in production
According to IFPMA director Thomas Cueni, this scientific competition for a vaccine is unprecedented. But in a context where Omicron no longer seems to be scary and where the demand for vaccines in the world is decreasing, this emulation of brains contrasts with the current needs of the market. In Africa, only 16% of the inhabitants are fully vaccinated, due to lack of logistical means and a moderately convinced population.
“Productions are no longer in full swing”, confirms Thomas Cueni, citing the example of the Aspen factory in South Africa. The latter, which had reached an agreement with Janssen to produce vaccines for the entire continent, is now threatening to stop production due to lack of orders.
When contacted, the company Lonza, which produces Moderna vaccines in Switzerland, declined to answer our questions about the evolution of its production.
Overall, Thomas Cueni estimates that “we probably have 50% more vaccines than we need”, which worries him: “The distance between the panic we experienced in 2020 and the current neglect is very short. 60% of the world’s population is fully immunized . I would prefer it to be 90%.”
In Switzerland, as in the world, the curve for new vaccinations is close to the ground.
14 million doses for 2023
It is currently difficult to know whether we will need a specific vaccine against Omicron. But the entire pharmaceutical industry is preparing for this and anticipating the next variant, which could be more severe.
For its part, Switzerland is closely monitoring the epidemiological situation. Berne currently does not recommend a fourth dose. But faced with a potential new increase in cases in the fall/winter of 2022, he has already armed himself. To the 34 million doses ordered for 2022, the Confederacy has just added an additional 14 million doses for 2023 from Pfizer and Moderna. According to the agreements concluded with them, Switzerland will receive the most recent version of the vaccine available.