Illustration: Assistant editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

Covid-19 spurred a his­toric vac­cine R&D ef­fort. What does it mean for fu­ture pan­demics?

In the his­toric cam­paign to vac­ci­nate the world against Covid-19, Cor­be­vax was far from the first vac­cine to reach the mar­ket. While the first mR­NA shot be­came avail­able 326 days af­ter the SARS-CoV-2 virus was se­quenced, the jour­ney of Cor­be­vax — which has so far gone in­to the arms of 75 mil­lion kids in In­dia and re­cent­ly won ap­proval for adults — spanned about 600 days.

But Pe­ter Hotez, one of its co-in­ven­tors, be­lieves it could’ve played out dif­fer­ent­ly if his team had re­ceived more fund­ing and there was a smoother reg­u­la­to­ry path.

“That could have been prob­a­bly cut in half had we had the sup­port to move faster,” said Hotez, the co-di­rec­tor of the Texas Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter for Vac­cine De­vel­op­ment.

There was good rea­son to go faster. The mad scram­ble for life-sav­ing shots ex­posed the stark dis­par­i­ties be­tween the vac­cine haves and have-nots. Cor­be­vax, a patent-free vac­cine based on old­er but proven tech­nol­o­gy, can be af­ford­ably pro­duced and dis­trib­uted to low­er-in­come coun­tries.

The Cor­be­vax sto­ry is rel­e­vant to a big­ger ques­tion as the world at­tempts to strength­en vac­cine re­search and de­vel­op­ment in­fra­struc­ture to go even faster and more eq­ui­tably dis­trib­ute vac­cines. Vex­ing sci­en­tif­ic, reg­u­la­to­ry and man­u­fac­tur­ing chal­lenges must be solved ahead of the next pan­dem­ic, pub­lic health ex­perts and ad­vo­ca­cy group rep­re­sen­ta­tives said in in­ter­views.

The Coali­tion for Epi­dem­ic Pre­pared­ness In­no­va­tions, or CEPI, which launched in 2017 in the wake of the Ebo­la out­break in West Africa, has pro­posed what it calls a moon­shot goal of spurring a vac­cine against a new pan­dem­ic-caus­ing pathogen in 100 days. The ini­tia­tive is known as the 100 Days Mis­sion.

Melanie Sav­ille, CEPI’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of vac­cine R&D, reck­ons the group would’ve been “laughed out of the room” if they had told peo­ple be­fore the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic that a vac­cine would ar­rive with­in 326 days – but al­ready there’s a path to go­ing faster.

“If you ac­tu­al­ly put every­body’s in­no­va­tion to­geth­er from Covid-19, we al­ready prob­a­bly could shave off two months by look­ing metic­u­lous­ly at every step of the process,” she said, cit­ing a CEPI analy­sis based on in­ter­views with com­pa­nies, in­ter­na­tion­al or­ga­ni­za­tions, reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies, acad­e­mia and the me­dia.

To get to 100 days, though, much more needs to be done. The key is to do as much of it up­front as pos­si­ble, she added, dur­ing so-called peace­time, much like decades-long RNA re­search ush­ered in the first Covid-19 vac­cines.

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