Words by Waqar Ahmed
Just mere weeks after a six-day pause in the Oxford-AstraZeneca trial, the race for a COVID-19 vaccine is at its peak, with more than 200 vaccines being researched and developed across the globe. These trials use a diverse range of technologies – several which haven’t been used in a licensed vaccine in the past. According to a Nature article, many of the current coronavirus vaccine trials may be announcing ‘game-changing’ results next month. For many, the prospect of a vaccine has come to epitomise hope – the promise of a swift return to normality. For some, perhaps even the end of the pandemic. A recent report, however, warns of the key challenges that scientists face in the manufacture, evaluation and distribution of an effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. Scientists have also warned that the perception of a vaccine as a ‘holy grail’ – a definitive end to the pandemic, may be a dangerous one
The report, published at the beginning of this month by the Royal Society DELVE Initiative, discusses the implications of a successful vaccination programme, the research required to understand the levels of immunity required for protection and the issue of vaccine hesitancy in today’s society, among other factors. The fact that long-term studies will be necessary to determine the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a new opinion amongst scientists, and when evaluating a vaccine programme, it is important to consider herd immunity – which will not be achieved with a low-efficacy vaccine.
Public trust is another crucial aspect that scientists aim to address in order to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Aside from barriers such as financial disincentives and perception or associated risks, there are a number of reasons some remain opposed to vaccination programmes. Scientists have expressed the significance of ‘convert communicators’ – individuals who have previously held strong beliefs against the use of vaccinations explaining the reasons behind the change in their attitudes, in an effort to highlight the wider repercussions of the anti-vaccination sentiment and the importance of recognising misinformation.
A recent Nature article also emphasised growing concerns over politicisation of vaccine development, with fears that such meddling could lead to hasty approval of a vaccine for emergency use without enough valid evidence. AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna – the three pharmaceutical companies behind the foremost phase III trials – have released documents which outline key details of their trial protocols in an effort to increase transparency and reassure the public of the safety of their vaccine trials, whilst not compromising any results.
Following the restart of the AZD1222 trial in the UK, Brazil, South Africa and India, the clinical trial of the vaccine has now also resumed in Japan. In the UK, a ground-breaking “challenge trial” is set to commence in January at London’s Royal Free Hospital, where patients will reportedly be vaccinated and then deliberately infected with a weakened version of SARS-CoV-2. This has been reported to be beneficial for researchers to better determine the efficacy of the vaccine in immunising against the novel coronavirus. With numerous vaccines having taken up to 15 years to develop, these clinical trials present an entirely unprecedented challenge, but research teams have shown mostly promising results thus far, despite the barriers they face.