An illustration on the plasma of cured patients from Covid-19. Illustration: AFP / Voisin / Phanie

Scientists believe they are one step closer to a breakthrough in the race to immunize the human race against the deadly Covid-19 disease. Clinical trials are already underway across the world to find a vaccine to combat the virus.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that a team led by Qin Chuan at China’s National Institutes for Food and Drug Control in Beijing had started human testing in Xuzhou, a major city in Jiangsu province. 

“Preclinical tests on non-human primates found that when given at a sufficient dose, the vaccine could provide protection against Sars-CoV-2, [which causes Covid-19],’” a preliminary paper said after being released by the research group on medRxiv.org and reported by the Chinese media.

Gong Xuejie, from project partners Sinovac Biotech, confirmed that the first volunteers were between the ages of 18 to 59.

“Safety checks on the first day after the vaccinations have been completed and preliminary results show the vaccine [candidate] is safe,” Gong told Thepaper.cn, a news website based in Shanghai.

Apart from the partnership between the National Institutes for Food and Drug Control and Sinovac Biotech, two other major trials have entered a second stage in China. 

They were rolled out by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Bio.

Up to 76 “vaccine candidates” are under development around the world, Science reported. “But public health officials have cautioned that from start to finish, it takes at least one year, and more likely 18 months, to prove whether a candidate is safe and effective. And that’s if no problems surface,” the leading source for scientific, technical and medical research said.

In the United Kingdom, a vaccine developed by Oxford University will enter human trials this week in a £20 million, or US$24.7 million, program funded by the UK government. Imperial College in London has also received £22.5 million in research aid.

Clinical test

“We are going to back them to the hilt and give them every resource that they need to get the best possible chance of success as soon as possible. The upside of being the first country in the world to develop a successful vaccine is so huge that I am throwing everything at it,” Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for Health and Social Care, told a media briefing.

The first clinical test of a vaccine in Germany has also been approved by the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut, the country’s regulatory body. The drug has been developed by the German firm, Biontech, and Pfizer, one of the pharmaceutical giants in the United States.

Still, it will probably take until 2021 before a vaccine is available and mass-produced despite frantic efforts to finally curb the Covid-19 catastrophe.

So far, more than 2.6 million people worldwide have been infected by this new strain of coronavirus with the death toll edging close to 185,000.

In Europe, Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have been badly hit by the outbreak, while the US has reported nearly 850,000 cases of infection with the death toll surging past 47,000.

The word lockdown has now become part of the lexicon of life as global governments inject $8 trillion into the system to shore up creaking economies.

Finding an effective vaccine for Covid-19 has become the overriding priority.

“So many groups are working on this and that is a very good sign. There are so many different proteins on the surface of the virus which makes it complex to find the best available vaccine. But this does herald a new age of cooperation and information from scientists across the world. This is very positive,” Dr William L Aldis, a former high-level World Health Organization official, told Asia Times earlier this month.

Last week, the big beasts of the pharmaceutical industry, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, announced that they had joined forces to work on a new drug. They hope to come up with a vaccine in the next 12 to 18 months.

“Now is not the moment to be thinking competitively but think about how we can work together to confront this global challenge,” Emma Walmsley, the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, told the media in a video call.

“We are planning to start trials in the next few months. If we are successful, subject to regulatory considerations, we aim to complete the development required to make the vaccine available in the second half of 2021,” she added.

GSK and Sanofi have a combined market value of more than $200 billion and a workforce of about 200,000. But they are not the only ones searching for a cure. 

AstraZeneca, another leading pharmaceutical group, will start clinical trials of its cancer drug, Calquence, “to assess its potential to control the exaggerated immune system response associated with Covid-19 infection in severely ill patients,” the Reuters news agency reported.

American healthcare group Johnson & Johnson also revealed last week in a conference call that it would produce up to 900 million doses of its potential vaccine in 2021 if human trials in September go as planned. Biotech business Moderna started testing earlier this month.

In Australia, vaccine research has been funded by the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovation or the CEPI, and the WHO, Asia Times reported in April. Animal trials have already taken place.

“Ultimately, the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine will be needed to fully interrupt transmission [of the disease],” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, told a virtual briefing.

For humanity, this is a battle the world will have to unite to win.

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