Could New Zealand produce a coronavirus vaccine?

While New Zealand could produce a coronavirus vaccine, uncertainty about how it would be deployed leaves significant uncertainty about the future potential to eradicate COVID-19, Kiwi researchers have said.

It was announced on Tuesday that New Zealand would be allocating NZD$37 million to a COVID-19 vaccine development strategy, efforts which would have the country working in concert with other countries to develop a vaccine as part of an international coalition led by the European Union. 

The total grant is composed of NZD$10 million to support local research and NZD$5 million for manufacturing capacity. Some NZD$15 million will be dedicated to international research collaboration and NZD$7 million to a vaccine alliance, Gavi, which distributes vaccines in the developing world. 

In an expert reaction panel by the Science Media Centre of New Zealand, Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris and Professor Peter McIntyre explored the possibilities for New Zealand’s ability to produce, test and use a vaccine against to curb the coronavirus.

They said a major challenge is that the people most at risk to COVID-19 – people over 70 years and those with pre-existing illnesses – are also people who don’t respond well to vaccines.

“So in fact, the only example of a vaccine that’s come along so far which is really effective in the older, frailer population, is, in fact, the new Zoster or shingles vaccine,” said University of Otago Professor McIntyre.

“It’s available in the United States, it’s not available in New Zealand. That vaccine uses what’s called an adjuvant which is a kind of secondary component of the vaccine which isn’t itself producing antibodies but is able to stimulate stronger and more robust immune responses.

“If we were going to successfully initially use a COVID-19 vaccine in the high-risk older, frailer population we would really need to look at whether we had a vaccine candidate that was capable of producing strong antibody responses in that group.”

Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris, a virologist from the University of Auckland said as well as the high risk older population, the first round of a successful vaccine could also go to front-line professionals, especially as there would be limited supplies of any vaccine.

Also the Chair of the W.H.O.’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety, Dr. Petousis-Harris said the accelerated process of the vaccine development work does not mean any compromise on any potential vaccine’s safety.

What often takes more than ten years to make is hopefully going to be done in less than two years, she said.

“While you’re doing a whole lot of things that are speeding this process up it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are skipping out important steps,” said Professor McIntyre, who is also a member of the World Health Organisation’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation.

“There are also approaches to address any of the additional risks that we might see when we’re looking at a vaccine that’s been through clinical trials of thousands and not tens of thousands of people.

“One of the interesting things about New Zealand is how few cases of coronavirus the nation has had, relative to its population. It makes New Zealand an attractive site for vaccine trials because the majority of the country has remained unexposed to the virus.

“Obviously some of the earlier vaccine trials where we’re just looking at responses to the vaccine, I think New Zealand would be quite an attractive site for that because there’ll be pretty much an unexposed population who might put their hands up to be part of a study like that,” 

“For what’s called phase three trials, where you’re actually trying to identify whether the vaccine protects you against disease, then I guess New Zealand’s in the fortunate situation where it’s not going to be a site for that kind of trial and I suppose we should all be thankful about that.”

Last week, the Guardian’s science editor Ian Sample reported that while the United Kingdom is investing heavily in vaccine development, it may not actually be possible.

Because coronaviruses do not typically trigger long-lasting immunity, a vaccine may either be incredibly short-term or not helpful at all, experts say. 

“If the natural infection doesn’t give you that much immunity except when it’s a severe infection, what will a vaccine do? It could be better, but we don’t know,” coronavirus researcher from the University of Iowa Dr. Stanley Perlman said. 

Sample reports that more likely the world will see a partially effective vaccine that needs to be taken annually like a flu shot. 

And according to the head of Pandefense Advisory, a group of epidemiology experts credited with a major role in the W.H.O.’s eradication of smallpox, that is not an ideal situation either.

“If and when we have a vaccine, what you get is not rainbows and unicorns,” Larry Brilliant said.

“If we are forced to choose a vaccine that gives only one year of protection, then we are doomed to have COVID become endemic, an infection that is always with us [… the virus will] ping-pong back and forth in time and geography.”

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