An independent insight into the global fight for a coronavirus vaccine.
Professor Eric Gowans is a world-renowned expert in virology and has stepped out of retirement to help in the fight against COVID-19.
We spoke to Prof Gowans to hear his thoughts on the global efforts to find a vaccine and set the record straight on realistic timelines.
Lately we’ve been hearing a coronavirus vaccine could be ready anywhere from within six months, to two years, to never. What is a realistic timeline?
The companies and research groups which are taking the time to do pre-clinical testing (the crucial step before human trials) are the ones that are the most encouraging.
In my opinion, there is no sense in doing a Phase 1 safety trial in humans if the vaccine hasn’t been shown to be effective in pre-clinical models. Although some companies are doing it all concurrently to save time which is ok.
In terms of a timeline – having to do pre-clinical then Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 safety and efficacy trials – it’s unlikely we’ll see a vaccine on the market for general use within the next 12 months, despite the urgency. The premature introduction of an unsafe vaccine will set the whole field back by several years and lead to lack of confidence in the community.
I think sometime towards the end of next year (2021) we might have a vaccine available for general use. In fact, we’ll have more than one.
What do you mean by ‘more than one’?
In terms of trying to protect the community and reach every country in the world, we will need a number of different companies producing their own vaccine.
The vaccines will still be based on the same science (with only minor differences), but they will be produced by different companies to provide greater reach.
What is the science behind the current vaccine front-runners?
You may have heard that there are around 240 vaccines in development around the world, well about 239 of them are pursuing the same strategy!
The spike protein on the coronavirus is the major target. It is the antibodies to the spike protein which are the objective of these vaccines, as these antibodies are neutralising and protect against the virus.
This approach has been based on the work done from the SARS 1 vaccine. And of the 240-odd projects worldwide, several have had positive, peer-reviewed findings which I am quite encouraged by.
Is a successful vaccine likely to be a once-off or a yearly injection like the flu?
One of the issues which keeps coming up is that the antibody responses to this virus are quite transient – they don’t last for very long.
So although all the vaccine developers are trying to make antibodies to the spike protein, it is possible that those antibodies may not last in any individual for any length of time.
So yes, it is possible that we may need to re-vaccinate on at least an annual basis, or even shorter than that, but let’s not put a timeframe on it. If the spike protein ends up being the preferred antigen that we use in the vaccine, then we may need to vaccinate people regularly to ensure continued protection.
Are there any long-term vaccine solutions expected in the future?
I suspect what will happen is that there will be a number of vaccines that will come onto the market towards the end of next year, and we will be grateful for those because there’s nothing else. As with all vaccine strategies, we weigh up the risk versus the benefit.
But yes as vaccines improve, those first generation vaccines will be replaced by second and third generation vaccines which may be equally effective but with longer-lasting immunity and perhaps fewer side effects.
Is there a risk that the coronavirus could mutate, and then we’re back at square one?
The virus seems to be relatively stable. There are a couple of reports that suggest there are mutations that end up with different variants, but these have not been substantiated.
So at the moment, there’s no convincing evidence that mutations will be a problem. That’s at the moment though, things might change and of course when we start to vaccinate people against one variant, then other variants sometimes break through after that.
Finally, with your 35+ years of experience in virology, what are your observations of the global handling of the pandemic?
I was surprised that Australia and other developed countries didn’t appear to have some kind of pre-prepared pandemic strategy in hand.
Given that there was a possibility of a pandemic with SARS 1 back in 2002/03, and a flu virus pandemic a few years ago as well, I would have thought many countries would have been better prepared by having stocks of masks and other personal protective equipment in hand.
But although we weren’t prepared for it, I think Australia has done a pretty good job in closing the gate after the horse has bolted, because many other countries have not.
I was also surprised over the reluctance of people in the community to realise just how dangerous this virus was. I would have thought that seeing the chief health officers on TV a lot would have helped more people understand more quickly just how dangerous this is.
Recognising and respecting the dangers of this virus is hugely important if we’re going to beat it, as is investing in research.