The race is gathering pace to find a vaccine to combat SARS-CoV-2. Image: Handout

As fears increase of a Covid-19 second wave, the race to find a vaccine has intensified.

At least 27 new cases were reported in Beijing on Tuesday after last week’s outbreak at the sprawling Xinfadi wholesale food market. 

In the past five days, there have been 106 confirmed infections with up to 30 communities now in a state of lockdown. Tens of thousands of people have also been tested in China’s capital.

Against this backdrop, researchers at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom will start clinical trials, involving 300 people between the ages of 18 and 70. Up to 6,000 volunteers could then take part in phase two later this year if there is an “effective immune response.”

“From a scientific perspective, new technologies mean we have been able to get moving on a potential vaccine with unprecedented speed,” Professor Robin Shattock, of the London Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College, said.

“We’ve been able to produce a vaccine from scratch and take it to human trials in just a few months – from code to candidate – which has never been done before with this type of vaccine. If our approach works and the vaccine provides effective protection against disease, it could revolutionize how we respond to disease outbreaks in [the] future,” Shattock, who heads the research team, added.

Already there are more than 100 “vaccine candidates” under development around the world to combat SARS-CoV-2 according to Nature, a scientific journal based in the UK.

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British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University is one of them. Last weekend, the company announced it had agreed to supply up to 400 million doses of a possible vaccine to Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands “by the end of 2020.”

Similar agreements have been put in place with the UK and the United States even though phase three trails are still in progress.

“[We] recognize that the vaccine may not work but [AstraZeneca] is committed to [a] clinical program with speed and scaling up manufacturing at risk,” the group said in a statement.

“Additionally, the company has quickly moved into [the] testing of new and existing medicines to treat the infection,” AstraZeneca said on its website.

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Moderna is another major player close to phase three trials. The American biotech company specializes in drug development and has forged a close partnership with the US National Institutes of Health.

In China, human testing has also started. Leading the way are the three key partnerships of the National Institutes for Food and Drug Control and Sinovac Biotech, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Institute of Virology, and China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Bio.

But then, the cluster outbreak in Beijing simply illustrates that the coronavirus will continue to flare up unless a vaccine is developed.

“The epidemic situation is extremely severe,” Xu Hejian, a Beijing city spokesman, told a media briefing on Tuesday. Concern has also been expressed by the World Health Organization, which pointed to the size of the 21 million population and the “city’s connectivity.”

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In a move to contain infections, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that 90,000 people a day are being tested. Authorities are also scaling up plans to track those who have left Beijing for other parts of the country.

Still, the state-controlled Global Times called for “residents to remain calm” in an editorial. Owned by the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper The People’s Daily, the nationalistic tabloid said:

“Beijing is not Wuhan 2.0 [a reference to the city that triggered the epidemic in China last year]. Beijing has accumulated anti-virus experience in the past few months. It also experienced fighting SARS 17 years ago. So it reacted fast this time and carried out preventive measures across key areas.

“We believe the virus will not spread wildly as in the early [stages] in Wuhan. As prevention and control mechanisms in the country are functioning, there is zero possibility that the epidemic in Beijing will spread to other parts of the country [on a] large scale.

“Be it Beijing residents or those from the rest of the country, they must remain calm as they cooperate in this latest anti-virus fight. Such calmness matters a lot to the country’s economic recovery. We must accept the reality that the epidemic will repeatedly occur in China, and what we should do is fight the virus in a scientific way.”

So far, Covid-19 carnage has wrecked lives and infected more than eight million people across the planet. Yet in the end, the only antidote for frayed nerves and rising infections will be a vaccine.