Scientists race against time to develop Covid-19 vaccine

Sunday July 05 2020

A researcher works on a Covid-19 vaccine on March 23, 2020. PHOTO | THIBAULT SAVARY | AFP


It’s a race against time for scientists developing Covid-19 vaccines and testing drugs as the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus surge across the globe.

With increased pressure, some vaccine candidates have gone to clinical trials and are expected to be deployed as soon as possible as coronavirus deaths cross the 530,000 mark.

According to an official statement by Indian Council of Medical Research, Covaxin — developed by Bharat Biotech, which is undergoing clinical trials — will be launched for human use on August 15.

Australia has also started clinical trials of its Covax-19 drug.


The trials started last Thursday and involved injecting the placebo into 40 healthy people between 18 and 65 years at the Royal Adelaide Hospital's clinical trials unit. Another trial of another vaccine started in Melbourne in May and involved 130 people.


The drug, NVX-CoV2373, is being developed by US biotech company Novavax, and preliminary results are expected later this month. If successful, the researchers hope that 100 million doses of the vaccine can be made by the end of 2020 and 1.5 billion in 2021.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified 18 vaccine candidates under clinical evaluation, with frontrunners being Oxford’s ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 (AZD1222), CanSino Biological Inc/ Beijing Institute of Biotechnology Adenovirus Type 5 Vector vaccine and Moderna’s (US) mRNA-1273.

Already, the Chinese military has approved the CanSino coronavirus vaccine to be used within its ranks. Researchers said the vaccine had a “good safety profile” and could potentially prevent Covid-19.

While Moderna was expected to start a 30,000-patient trial of its vaccine this week, the process has been delayed.

It’s not yet clear how long it will take for the trial to start, although the company is still keen on releasing the vaccine for human trials this month, according to the investigators.


This delay resulted from the fact that the company is making variations in the trial plan (protocol).

Another US company, Pfizer, which is working with the German firm BioNTech, has plans to start a 30,000-patient study of its own vaccine later this month. This is after its drug BNT162b1 showed potential and was well tolerated in early-stage human trials, according to the companies.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University are also expected to start similarly sized trials in August, followed by Johnson & Johnson in September.

In Africa, South Africa became the first country to start clinical trials of the ChAdOx1 vaccine, a weakened and non-replicating form of a common cold virus (adenovirus).

The vaccine, which was developed at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute in collaboration with AstraZeneca, is also being tried in the UK, and involves over 4,000 participants. There are also plans to start a 30,000-patient study of the vaccine in August.


Currently over 140 vaccine candidates listed by the WHO are in the pre-clinical trial phase and researchers are working hard to either develop treatment for the coronavirus disease or vaccines for the virus that has infected over 11 million people.

While progress has been made in Covid-19 vaccine and drug development, some of the drugs on clinical trials have failed.

The latest is Sanofi’s Kevzara. The drug, which was being tested in conjunction with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, was reported to have failed in Phase III clinical trial. Kevzara (sarilumab), used to treat arthritis, was found to have adverse effects on Covid-19 patients.

The WHO has also discontinued the solidarity trial in testing of hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir/ritonavir after results showed that the drugs “produce little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalised Covid-19 patients when compared to standard of care.