Tracing the origins of Covid-19 has become an overriding priority. Image: WHO

It is a race like no other. 

Up to 70 “candidates” across the globe are working on a vaccine for the Covid-19 disease. At stake are millions of lives and the chance to stop the world from suffering an estimated US$9 trillion dip in GDP during the next two years.

Quite simply, that would save the planet from another Great Depression, or as the International Monetary Fund has called it, the “Great Lockdown” recession.

In China, three major clinical trials have already entered a second stage.

They were rolled out last month by the Beijing division of Sinovac Biotech, and a partnership between the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A third involves China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Bio.

Phase two tests started this week.

“The vaccine carries the gene of the coronavirus spike protein, so that the subject’s body will produce the immunological memory of the protein. When the real coronavirus attacks, the body will identify its spike protein and stop its invasion,” Chen Wei, who heads a research team at the Institute of Military Medicine under the Academy of Military Sciences, said.

New strain

So far, more than two million people across the globe have been infected by this new strain of coronavirus with the death toll edging close to 130,000.

In Europe, Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have been ravaged by the outbreak, while the US has reported more than 600,000 cases of infection.

The word lockdown has 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 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.

“But with so many groups involved, that is why the WHO has such an important role to play,” Aldis, who worked in pandemic preparedness and response in Southeast Asia and Africa, said.

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

Big beasts of the pharmaceutical industry, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, announced earlier this week 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 to 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.

Johnson & Johnson also revealed this 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.

“Our global connectedness means the risk of re-introduction and resurgence of Covid-19 will continue. Ultimately, the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine will be needed to fully interrupt transmission,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, told a virtual briefing.

A race, in fact, to immunize the human race.