In today’s newsletter, we talk about the $2 Billion dollar race to create a vaccine for Covid-19 and all the challenges we are likely to face in this endeavor.


The Story

Let’s get one thing clear straight off the bat. The biggest hurdle isn’t in whipping up a vaccine. Oh no, not one bit. The real challenge is in proving the safety and efficacy of the drug.

And more often than not, this bit can take years on end. For instance, once a drug company gets its hands on a potential vaccine it begins testing the drug in phases. First, we have the pre-clinical trials, where the vaccine is tested on animals or animal cells. If scientists can prove that the drug isn’t toxic, they can go ahead and begin testing it on humans.

When you get to human trials, you first begin with a small number of people and administer tiny doses to ensure it isn't fatal. Once you are through with this bit, you can start testing the drug in higher doses (in later phases).

Slowly you ramp up the testing by including more patients and between the pre-clinical, phase 1, phase 2, and phase 3 trials (which usually involves thousands of participants), the drug company will have spent billions of dollars over many many months trying to muster enough evidence to prove that the drug is effective and does not induce rare long term side effects. So despite what anyone’s telling you, the vaccine isn’t coming any time soon. It’s going to take at least another 12–18 months and that’s assuming you’ll be skipping some steps along the way.

But then there is another contention. What happens if the pandemic is contained by the time vaccines hit the market. Why would drug companies still rush to produce the vaccine knowing fully well there might never be a market for this drug? That is a valid argument. However, it is entirely possible that the virus might wane in the next few months only to re-emerge with vengeance next year. And if it does, we will need the vaccines and pharmaceutical companies are fully privy to this little detail.

But then there is another problem. Many people have been talking about price controls i.e. capping the price of the drug to ensure it's accessible to most people. The issue here is that it would dissuade drug companies from throwing the kitchen sink at the virus. Because if you cap the price at a certain maximum, they might have no real incentive to produce the vaccine. But then, if you let the drug companies price the vaccine out of reach for most people, poor countries will bear the brunt of this pandemic. The virus will continue to live on wreaking havoc in the poorest communities and that would be a terrible tragedy. So it’s imperative for governments to walk the tightrope here and find the right balance. Maybe even fund some of these testing procedures themselves.

The final talking point is about the companies that are actually committed to producing the vaccine — the silent guardians toiling day in and day out to get the drug out in the market.

Well for starters, we have Moderna, a small pharmaceutical company that’s using an entirely novel approach to produce the vaccine in almost record time. In fact, the Boston based company was on the verge of conducting a dry run to see how quickly they could respond to a pandemic when Coronavirus started taking centre stage. Needless to say, the dry run was no longer deemed necessary considering they had a very real test on their hands.

We also have legacy companies like Johnson and Johnson, Sanofi etc. who have partnered with state agencies to begin work soon and government labs all over the world are also racing against time to help in any which way they can. Bottom line — Despite the many challenges facing the industry, it seems as if the race to produce a vaccine is well on track and until then, we hope that people in affected countries can pull through and emerge stronger than ever before.

Don’t forget to wash your hands eh? Until next time…

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