• Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022
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Is a vaccine on the way?

  • Published at 01:16 pm May 14th, 2020
poor distancing relief
Photo: REUTERS

With social distancing failing in many regards, vaccines may be our only hope

I am constantly reminded by my well-wishers to minimize rocking the boat and I try my best to pay heed to their caution. Sometimes, though, my duty-call intellect overrides such an overcautious approach in an attempt to support fending off potentially serious harm likely to befall the greater community.

Recently, the Bangladesh government’s objectives of preventing death and destruction from Covid-19 seem to have taken an enormous hit as a consequence of the tug of war between the proponents of the withdrawal of lockdown through social distancing.

Hawks and doves

In one corner, the hawks and in the other, their opponents, the doves. The hawks have the socio-economic vigour, usually amplified by their feral ability to coax in political might. In fact, they are themselves riding in the helm of legislative prepotency. 

The doves, on the contrary, are the underdogs, socially, economically, and politically deprived, belonging to the overwhelming majority of the population. Their hope is that the honourable prime minister is on their side. 

So, what do we have to tackle an enemy of such mammoth destructive power that is sweeping the globe, destroying human life with impunity? To combat this devastatingly powerful adversary, we have in Bangladesh a fractured and ever-struggling public health care system. 

Though this weakness-magnifique has always been known implicitly, it has come to enlighten public domain only recently after its flaws and fragility were exposed when the viral pandemic spread. 

We have a political infrastructure that prides highest leadership but lacks honest, dedicated, and devoted support systems for the colossal population living in one of the most densely inhabited lands on Earth. 

In addition, we have a social capital that can respond in an organized fashion only when exposed to extreme provocation such as when we observed in our War of Independence in 1971 and towards the later part of the 80s, bringing down a populace-adverse dictatorial regime. 

The situation in this pandemic is no better even in some of the developed economies of the world that advocate strict capitalism without the benefit of built-in or otherwise social fairness, evidenced from the recent devastation sweeping through the US, the UK, and some of the other European Countries. 

On the contrary, the picture is markedly different in the majority of Scandinavian States, Iceland, New Zealand, and deserving particular mention, Germany, who have demonstrated overwhelming success in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, with credit to their capitalistic economy that safeguards social fairness.

Only time will tell

So, our efforts in Bangladesh in social distancing may not have been an utter failure, but, of course, only time will tell. There is, however, an increasing number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 and the number keeps on increasing. The choice now for us will be specific prevention and/or treatment.

Let me confine today’s discussion to vaccine strategy against the coronavirus as that is the pathway the UK appears to be concentrating on as well as leading the global community in that effort. 

I shall concentrate briefly on a number of related issues: 1. The UK government’s support for the hunt for a vaccine. 2. Views of the members of the Oxford Covid-19 Vaccine Project. 3. Approach of the global community and 4. Despite contradictory views on the possibility of development of a successful vaccine, the reason for the confidence of the Oxford project team in their search for a successful vaccine.

The British approach

On April 22 this year, the health minister (in the UK, the secretary of state for health) announced the allocation of £20 million for the Oxford Vaccine Project. He also committed £22.5 million for the Imperial College Vaccine Project and £250 million to the Collaboration for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). 

Mr Hancock promised to provide the Oxford University Jenner Institute and Oxford University Vaccine Group jointly working to produce the vaccine every possible resource the team would require to successfully develop the vaccine. In his own words, the health secretary mentioned to “back them to the hilt.”

Professor Andrew Pollard is the chief investigator of the project. He is also the professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford. He said that almost all the funding of £20 million would be diverted to the phase one clinical trial that started on April 23 on volunteer healthy adults aged between 18-55. 

This, he mentioned, was to ensure the most comprehensive data-tests on the trial population. Once the clinical trial on the initial age group is completed, the trial would then continue on other age groups. 

Professor Pollard is also of the view that a million vaccines would be produced for inoculation by the end of summer and beginning of autumn, in other words, by September this year, and a potential large-scale production capacity is already planned at risk to be in place, indicating that the large scale vaccine would be manufactured at risk of being ineffective and destroyed if trials fail to demonstrate the vaccine’s efficacy.

Professor Adrian Hill, the director of the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, revealed that the vaccine, if proven successful, would herald the manufacture of hundreds of million doses so that global immunization could be ensured by the end of the year 2020 to successfully end the pandemic. 

Professor Sir John Bell is the Regius (appointed by Royal patronage, first introduced by King James the IV in Medicine in 1497) Professor of Medicine, Oxford University and believes that several hundred British volunteers have already been injected with the vaccine and indication of the vaccine works is likely to be available by mid-June. 

In April, when Matt Hancock MP, the UK Health secretary, announced the allocation of funds for the Oxford Vaccine project and mentioned that he would back the Oxford Group to the hilt, he also mentioned initially that the British public would get the vaccine early as it was being funded by the UK taxpayers. 

But, within 24 hours, he backed down on the claim as the world community came forward to collaborate jointly on all global vaccine projects. So, Britons will not get preferential access to any new vaccines developed by taxpayer-funded UK universities. 

The deal with the World Health Organization means Britain has agreed to work with 20 other countries including the US, France, Germany, and Italy and global organisations such as the Collaboration for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to find a vaccine and to share the results. 

The US has already pledged a billion dollars in their hunt for a vaccine. At the present moment, the share of the vaccine work is being shared as follows: US 46%, Australasia 18%, China 18%, and Europe 18%. Huge funding has already been committed by the global community for a billion vaccine jabs by the end of the year, including private individuals such as Bill Gates.

The Oxford vaccine has already been tested at the US National Institute of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana on rhesus monkeys. Rhesus macaques have the closest similar immune systems to humans. 

The result demonstrated that a single dose of the vaccine was effective at protecting monkeys from developing Covid-19 when exposed to large quantities of the virus, though a positive result in animal trials doesn’t automatically reflect the promise of the same result in humans.

The Oxford Group has not been working in isolation; they are in fact working in collaboration with worldwide academics with regular review of the progress in their hunt for the vaccine. Any serious possibility of failure, red flagged by these global academics, would surely strike substantial dent in the group’s confidence. The collaboration is being coordinated by the WHO.

The Oxford Group’s confidence is built on their past experience of success. They had used the same vaccine technology on other diseases, including the related coronavirus MERS as well as Ebola. The ChAdOx1 nCoV19, the Oxford vaccine, used a genetically modified chimpanzee’s adenovirus as a vector to carry the genetic sequence of a protein (spike glycoprotein) from the Covid-19 coronavirus to the human body. 

The body can then learn to recognize the coronavirus and start producing antibodies to fight it. The same technique the team previously used for the closely related Mers coronavirus had shown similar promise in animals and in early human tests. 

Vaccine development usually takes a long time and, at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, opinion regarding time to produce a vaccine was in favour of at least 18 months, but the Oxford Group proved everyone wrong by producing the vaccine only within 3 months after the genetic sequence of the deadly virus was first published. 

This is because of the earlier development of their vaccine manufacturing platform (Vax Hub), the result of the collaborative effort of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, University College London, and the University of Oxford. 

Dr Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is a Colonel, Royal Army Medical Corps, UK Armed Forces, and Specialist Surgeon & Global Health Policy and Planning Expert.

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