Dr Jerome Kim, Director General of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, speaks about the challenges behind developing a COVID-19 vaccine

Developing a vaccine for coronavirus in 12-18 months would be ‘almost unprecedented’, according to a health expert who participated in a special online edition of the Education City Speaker Series, organised by Qatar Foundation and the World Innovation Summit for Health, focusing on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Dr Jerome Kim, Director General of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) in Seoul, South Korea – who was among the speakers in the webinar – said that this timescale is what labs across the world are aiming for – provided all goes according to plan.

Dr Jerome Kim

As the Education City Speaker Series highlighted the need for pan-global dialogue to help combat COVID-19, Dr Kim spoke about the challenges in developing a vaccine that could potentially halt the spread of the virus. He said that as per the latest reports, clinical trials on potential vaccines began in mid-March across the globe.

There are currently five such trials. All these vaccines would need to go through the entire cycle of testing, three phases – and these vaccines are still in phase 1.

In the first phase, the vaccine will be given a group of 50 or fewer volunteers, with the focus being on its safety and whether the vaccine is triggering a positive response against targets in the virus. Further phases will see testing widened to include increasingly larger groups of people, alongside stringent monitoring and data collection that points to the side-effects, safety, immune responses, and efficacy of the vaccine.

Addressing the issue of whether a vaccine would be ready for use in time to tackle any second wave of COVID-19, Dr Kim said that trying to calculate a reasonable timeline for such an outbreak is in itself a challenge.

We don’t know when – and if at all – such a second wave will strike, but we are expecting that it might. When it comes to tackling the second wave scenarios, governments need to have a look at the data that they’re collecting and use these data to make sound strategic decisions.

Additionally, Dr Kim said that there may, for instance, be certain conditions of sub-optimal suppression when you don’t have everything under control – such as not being able to ramp up testing, tracking, and isolating cases, or if hospitals are overflowing with cases – that could lead to a second wave of COVID-19 cases coming earlier than expected, and/or even more stress on healthcare resources that are already at a breaking point.

The former US army physician noted how the preparedness of governments – and public awareness – will play as big a role as a vaccine in tackling the ongoing pandemic, and protecting against a possible second wave.

Dialogue and discussion – such as the Education City Speaker Series – are critical; they allow experts to inform the public of the latest developments, he said.

When an outbreak occurs in a country, it is crucial that information is swiftly conveyed to other countries; artificially restricting or withholding facts will only create further problems.

Dr Kim noted how the news that there are currently five separate clinical trials taking place in labs across the US, Europe and Asia generates hope and cautious optimism, but added that in vaccine development, it’s an unfortunate fact that, if you look at the data from big companies, only one in 10 vaccine candidates actually make it all the way to the point where it is marketed.

With that kind of failure rate, it is very important that we have multiple vaccine candidates, in the hope that one, two, or even three may reach a point where they are shown to be effective against COVID-19.

One of IVI’s partners, the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), headquartered in Norway, recently announced that its researchers had identified 115 vaccine candidates, five of which have progressed into phase 1 of testing.

Meanwhile, as the research world grapples with the task of identifying vaccine candidates, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused global attention on how expensive vaccine development can be.

Large companies say it costs them about US$1 billion to make a vaccine over the course of five to 10 years, which is expensive, according to Dr Kim. CEPI is requesting US$2 billion to move COVID-19 vaccine development forward.

He said that when it comes to manufacturing, we have to think about the number of doses that would eventually be needed. If there are seven billion people in this world, and they each require two doses each, that’s 14 billion doses of vaccines.

And that’s not all. Decisions on who will be offered a vaccine first should be made sooner rather than later. Who has the biggest problems? Should we give it to frontline healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses first? Or should a specific population be administered the vaccines?

Those working around the clock to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 are going to have to think very carefully about who gets the vaccines first. And that’s a decision that is best made before there is actually a vaccine in hand – because once you have it, it’s going to be difficult to respond to demand in a fair and effective manner.

Education City Speaker Series – Online Edition