The COVID-19 Vaccine Race
By Jaymee Palma Assistant Editor
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on daily lives globally, with social distancing measures in place for many countries. Although countries like South Korea and Taiwan seem to have already flattened the curve, some experts warn that the only way for the world to truly return to normalcy is to find a vaccine for the disease. This demand has spurred scientists and companies into a global vaccine development race, with over 70 active groups in varying stages of development. The speed at which these groups are developing vaccines — with two already in the human testing phase — is unprecedented; normally, it takes 10 to 15 years to create a new vaccine. It has been suggested that a COVID-19 vaccine may be available in just 12 to 18 months, although some scientists warn against rushing the development process due to safety concerns.
The rapid vaccine development scene is largely due to the early sequencing of the virus’ genetic material. China provided the sequence to the World Health Organization (WHO) in early January, allowing scientists all over the world to grow and study the virus in laboratories. On April 10, scientists from South Korea were able to map the whole genome of the virus, providing further information on possible viral treatments. Another reason is the availability of previous work on vaccines for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which served as an important building block for vaccine development efforts.
Vaccines work by administering a small dose of the inactivated pathogen to “train” the immune system to recognize them. Ideally, the next time a person is exposed to the pathogen, the immune system is able to rapidly mount a response before it can take hold. Some groups developing COVID-19 vaccines use this conventional method, relying on dead or weakened SARS-CoV-2 virus or virus fragments. Although this is the tried-and-tested approach, it takes a longer time as it is difficult to isolate and modify live viruses in the lab. Other projects rely on more innovative approaches. Moderna, the first company to begin human testing, is experimenting with a messenger RNA (mRNA) platform. The mRNA is modified to carry a copy of genetic material from the virus, containing instructions for cells to produce antibodies to the virus. Because this method holds a lot of promise to be more efficient than traditional vaccines, Moderna has secured as much as 483 million USD in government funding. However, no vaccine that uses a virus’ genetic material has ever been approved for clinical use; it will have to go through rigorous testing to ensure that it is safe to use. Another collaboration is working on repurposing an existing measles vaccine, since there are already production facilities in place for its mass production.
Although scientific data is a crucial aspect that limits vaccine development, the rules of economics and profitability play a significant role. In the case of MERS in 2012 and SARS in the early 2000s, work on vaccines was shelved once the epidemics died down. The financial incentive to further develop and produce vaccines disappears once the diseases which they are created for are no longer considered health crises. Vaccine development is a risky business endeavor. The cost of vaccine development is estimated to be between 200 million to 500 million USD, but there are only a few vaccines that reach clinical trials — and fewer still that get approved for use. To address funding challenges, the Norway-based nonprofit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) was established in 2017, in response to the slow scientific progress during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. It is currently coordinating COVID-19 vaccine development by forming partnerships and funding vaccine candidates.
Even after a vaccine receives approval, there are more hurdles to cross. Production facilities should be tailored to the specific vaccine to be produced; however, they usually don’t get built until the vaccine receives approval. Another problem lies in distribution: there is no way to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. Once developed, vaccines are likely to be hoarded by rich countries or by countries that make them — as occurred during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. In order to prevent this from happening again, United Nations member states put forth a resolution calling for "equitable, efficient and timely access to future vaccines”.
Vaccines are the way to end the biggest disruption that the world has faced in recent history. We must learn from our mistakes in the past: vaccine development must be treated as more than just a business prospect. Its importance should never be forgotten, even when the pandemic turns into small, localized outbreaks. For the world to succeed against COVID-19, greater coordination between the sectors of politics, finance, industry, science, and public health must prevail.
A Borderless Crisis
By Hanbit Lee Junior Staff Reporter
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, is an international humanitarian organization focused on providing medical assistance in conflict areas and countries affected by endemic diseases. Building on their long experience as an emergency organization, Doctors Without Borders is one of many organizations that are proactively responding to the COVID-19 crisis by sharing their expertise.
When the pandemic first broke out in late January, MSF sent specialized medical equipment to Wuhan, China. They also launched a health education campaign in Hong Kong to provide information to vulnerable communities on how to protect themselves from the disease. Now that the disease has spread across the world, MSF is coordinating with the WHO and local ministries of health in more than 70 countries. MSF is also increasing its efforts on disease prevention training for health staff and the public. In Italy, one of the worst affected countries, MSF sent teams to provide support for infection prevention and patient care. In Greece, where there is an emerging number of cases in refugee camps, MSF is coordinating health education and providing medical support for asylum seekers.
MSF’s major concern is for communities living under precarious conditions, especially those lacking access to water, sanitation, and health care. Since the first case of COVID-19 confirmed in Yemen, MSF has been urgently calling for the government to allow the entry of medical supplies and personnel to the region. Five years of war in Yemen has decimated the medical sector, and “an effective response to the disease is almost impossible with the existing resources in the country,” according to Caroline Seguin, the MSF operations manager for Yemen. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 80% of the population of Yemen requires humanitarian assistance. Widespread poverty and lack of sanitation and healthcare have made the population prone to malnutrition and easily preventable diseases such as cholera. Without prompt international assistance, the spread of COVID-19 could easily escalate into a devastating crisis in the war-torn country. MSF has assisted in setting up two COVID-19 treatment centers, and is working in conjunction with local authorities to plan their response. However, Seguin emphasized that their capacity is very limited and that extra support will be necessary for their overworked staff.
MSF is facing serious difficulties while trying to ensure continuous care for the most vulnerable communities. Protecting medical staff and patients, ensuring effective infection prevention and control measures, and securing the supply of essential medical equipment and drugs are some the daunting tasks MSF is struggling to complete. Furthermore, with many countries imposing strict travel restrictions, staff mobility has been compromised. But although it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide and maintain medical programs in vulnerable communities around the world, MSF is firm in their commitment to carry out their mission.
Dr. Christos Christou, the president of MSF, said in his address to all MSF staff and supporters that “we must raise our voices publicly even louder than usual, to ensure that vulnerable and invisible populations do not get forgotten, while the COVID-19 grabs all the attention.” He especially stressed that effective treatment and vaccines should not be the latest auction of the pharmaceutical company, and that no one should be left behind. Despite uncertainties regarding how the crisis will impact the world economy and donors’ financial commitments, Christou ended by assuring that with MSF’s energy and continued support, we will find solutions to these issues. In times of crisis, it is easy to focus only on problems near us, in our communities, or in our countries. MSF reminds us that for a borderless crisis, a borderless response is necessary. Multilateral cooperation and international solidarity are what will get us out of this pandemic.
The Role of Technology
By Zunnoor Awan Junior Staff Reporter
The current crisis has presented us with many unfamiliar challenges. Finding suitable resolutions is imperative to minimizing the social and economic disruption caused by COVID-19, to bring our lives back to normality.
These circumstances have perhaps been most disruptive to academic institutions. Schools and universities worldwide have been forced into closure and have mostly switched to online systems. This shift has proven challenging for many reasons, the most important being the near total unfamiliarity of most students and teachers with online education. This change will require a paradigm shift in education, as we must figure out how key activities such as group-based learning, exams and assessments, research work in labs, and personal feedback from the professors should take place. More significantly, the lack of internet access for half of the world’s population means that not only is it important to find ways to improve online learning systems, it is also essential to find ways to extend access to more people and establish offline methods of digital learning.
As our efforts to counter the spread of COVID-19 spread rely entirely on containment and prevention, it is essential for everyone to have access to sound medical advice, but ensuring that the correct information reaches a wide audience is a multifaceted challenge. At the minimum, it involves verifying the credibility of the sources, translating into local languages, and using both conventional and novel communication channels for dissemination. Misinformation is rife, with unsubstantiated prevention methods and cures circulating on social media platforms. To deal with these problems, several global institutions and organizations, such as the WHO and UNESCO, have taken the initiative to organize “hackathons”: timed contests where participants work in teams and are expected to find workable solutions to outlined challenges. Many leading tech companies, including IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook are sponsoring these hackathons, and leading universities, including MIT, are also organizing similar events.
Many unique schemes have been synthesized in these contests. In a hackathon organized by the United Nations Development Program, dozens of ingenious approaches were presented to deal with the current crisis. The first prize went to a start-up that designed a solar-powered hand-sanitizer device, which uses ultraviolet radiation in sunlight to deactivate viruses and bacteria. The device is relatively cheap and simple to build, and since the coronavirus spreads mainly through physical contact, the widespread availability of such sanitary equipment will mark a key milestone in eradicating the virus. Another team designed an application to provide online emotional support to people in isolation. A different hackathon organized by the Estonian government led to the creation of a chat-bot that aims to fight misinformation about COVID-19 and ensure people get their information from trustworthy sources.
As healthcare systems come under immense pressure, effectively using the limited resources of hospitals is another major objective. A start-up led by MIT alumni used their experience in applying vehicle management artificial intelligence to create a system for efficiently allocating beds to patients They also used vehicle routing technology to help dispatch ambulances. Their system has been commissioned into active use.
In an event organized by the WHO to focus specifically on the challenges in Africa, the participants designed a screening tool, operable via mobile devices, that prioritizes and more efficiently reports COVID-19 test cases to national authorities. Banknotes are also feared to be a source of virus transmission; in a key step, the central banks of Ghana and Kenya are now promoting digital payment options. Additionally, a leading pan-African e-commerce company, Jumia, has adapted the use of its supply-chain to help transport test kits and relief items.
These innovation-promoting events will continue in the near future, and we can expect to see some revolutionary means of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these solutions will retain their usefulness long after this crisis has passed, and perhaps this is a silver lining to the current grim environment.
By Chrysan Angela Staff Reporter
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. What used to be busy mornings of rushing to the office and awkwardly greeting coworkers have turned into days of staring into laptops and attending online conferences. Hospitals are filled to the brim and healthcare workers are working around the clock in a desperate attempt to help as many patients as possible. Cities all over the world are being locked down, while airports are enforcing strict screening rules to travelers. If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it is how COVID-19 opens our eyes to issues that should have been addressed even before this pandemic happened.
First off, a survey released on April 13 by professional services company PwC has shown that 49% of businesses in the US expect to need more than three months to recover after COVID-19, while 39% are considering changing their supply chain. Most businesses still heavily rely on in-person interaction, and so this pandemic has taken a big toll. One might expect that business leaders would have adopted more internet-based approaches in their companies already in this age of technology, but the sudden switchover in many has revealed just how analogue much of the world remains. With meetings held via online conferences in applications like Zoom and Cisco Webex becoming the norm over the past few months, companies might want to consider the use of these platforms even after this pandemic ends. Adopting these online teleconference methods could present some benefits, such as reducing the amount of travel, streamlining budget, and increasing time efficiency.
Furthermore, companies should be better prepared to account for absent employees and take care of their workers’ welfare over their own financial interests. According to a recent survey by the International Trade Union Congress on some of the world’s most economically powerful countries, only 21% are providing adequate sick leave for workers related to coronavirus. Workers, especially those with lower financial security, risk losing their jobs if they choose to isolate and are therefore forced by circumstance to go to work even if they are sick, worsening the risk of virus spread. Although work-from-home solutions are ideal in some cases, some work, like factory production, just cannot be done online, and many people are losing their jobs entirely. In the US, the unemployment rate is at around 23% as of April 23, and every week millions more are applying for unemployment relief. Ensuring the availability of paid sick leave would not only benefit workers, but also companies — increasing the overall productivity of their employees and improving their reputation.
The capacity and preparedness of healthcare facilities for crises such as these are also key issues. Medical experts around the world are scrambling to respond to the exponential surge of coronavirus patients, and hospitals are overloaded to the point of having to refuse additional patients. It is clear that more healthcare professionals should be trained and fast-track training options should be prepared to respond to emergency situations. Workers in certain fields might also be trained to do basic healthcare jobs. For example, laid-off airline workers in Sweden are receiving training for key healthcare tasks. COVID-19 has also unveiled the lack of social security for the elderly. They often have to rely completely on their families and relatives for financial and health support, but this presents problems for financially insecure families. Since elderly people are a vulnerable group in society that has impacts on the younger generations as well, long-term developments in social security and elderly care are well overdue.
We should consider the lessons of this coronavirus thoroughly, as the COVID-19 outbreak will not be the last. The world has not learned enough from other recent outbreaks like SARS, H1N1, and MERS — and COVID-19 has shown us exactly how ill-prepared we are. Even if the crisis situation were to diminish this summer, some experts worry that the coronavirus could return in the winter along with the seasonal common cold. Humanity must take radical and innovative action as soon as possible to resolve the long-term issues brought to light by the coronavirus; the benefits will be seen not in future similar crises, but hopefully, the lack of them.