Written by Kunal Sawhney, CEO, Kalkine Media
The covid-19 crisis has not only caused a global public health crisis, but has also seen the development and distribution of vaccines at the fastest pace thus far.
The beginning of 2021 saw several vaccines getting emergency approvals to help stem the pandemic and slowly transition out of this phase. Some of the handful of vaccines that have received emergency approval for mass vaccination across the globe have so far been led by AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.
Moreover, there are currently 277 covid-19 vaccines in development around the world, of which 93 are in the human testing phase, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
However, while these first-generation vaccines have proven useful, they have also faced some challenges such as the efficacy against the rise of new variants, vaccine availability, risk and safety issues and distribution challenges among other.
Moreover, these two vaccine-related behavioural trends are further exacerbating existing challenges and could delay achieving herd immunity at the global scale:
- Vaccine hesitancy: The evidence of some people developing severe side effects such as blood clots and other issues has caused some governments to temporarily pause rolling out of some vaccines due to the risks associated and fear of certain sections of the population about the health risks in taking the jabs.
- Inequitable access and vaccine hoarding: One of the primary challenges has been the lack of equal access to vaccines, particularly for poorer nations. The African Union stated last week that the growing trend of hoarding had worsened the access to vaccine for the continent. According to data from People Vaccine Alliance, wealthier nations which account for just 14 per cent of the global population, have bought 53 per cent of the total vaccine supply, far exceeding their population size.
Scientists have warned that unless the entire human population achieves herd immunity, the virus will continue to mutate, and the pandemic will rage on.
On the healthcare and technology side, these are some solutions:
- Second gen vaccines: These vaccines and booster vaccines are currently being tested and expected to be launched later in the year or early next year. They are being designed to better address the new variant efficacy concerns. Moreover, second gen vaccines are being developed in pill or nasal spray form and are likely to be cheaper. Being able to store vaccines at room temperature would also make it easier to administer.
- Nanotech: Currently, nanotechnology is playing an increasingly important role in therapy for coronaviruses. The development of nano-bio sensors and nano-particle based vaccines and drugs have opened the doors for better management of covid-19. At present, nanotechnology has seen use cases in antiviral therapy such as Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) therapy and nano-based vaccines, which offers hope for combating existing and mutated versions of different types of coronaviruses.
- Historical vaccine development trend: Newer vaccines are also exploring easier storage methods and are unlikely to face as many cold storage and supply chain challenges as their first-gen counterparts. Historically, other vaccines such as for polio started as injections until the development of oral vaccines.
And on the international vaccine policy side, actions such as the following would be of additional advantage:
- Vaccine IP waiver: Waiving off the intellectual property (IP) rights associated with covid vaccines can allow other nations who are facing shortages to develop and distribute vaccines. The BRICS coalition (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have already proposed temporarily waiving off IP rights for improving global vaccine equity, with the US backing the move.
- Knowledge transfer: In addition to waiving off IP vaccine, governments should also encourage the sharing of vaccine doses, facilitate technology transfers and provide support in developing local production to poorer nations. Helping develop robust supply chain infrastructure and maintain price transparency would also boost the fight against the infectious disease.
- Transparent communication: In order to address vaccine hesitancy, public health authorities should make clear and transparent communication of a vaccine’s risks and safety at every step. While the recent pause of Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine is a safety monitoring system, however persisting hesitancy from the population suggests that greater levels of communication and awareness can and must be undertaken by authorities.
Overall, the emergence of second-gen vaccines has the potential to address several of the supply chain issues related to cold storage, better efficacy against existing and newer variants and other factors and newer technology such as nanotech as the potential to have use cases not just for vaccines but for therapy and beyond.
Meanwhile, a concerted effort by the international community to better communicate vaccine safety and risks and address hoarding issues will help end this global pandemic.