Since the outbreak of Covid-19, many people have been asking when a vaccine will be available to protect us from the virus.
In going through this article, you will get an idea of what’s involved from Dr. Oranee Tangphao, a physician and expert in clinical research and drug development, who serves as a consultant to several government and private organizations. Dr. Oranee explores “The Challenge of Vaccine Development” detailing the factors that contribute to high vaccine costs and long production timeframes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing people’s mindsets around the world. They are becoming more focused and serious about their own health and of those around them. Inevitably, the question on everyone’s mind is, when will a vaccine be available to beat this rapidly growing outbreak?
The simple answer, for now, is that no vaccine is currently available for COVID-19. However, governments in several countries are racing to boost their R&D efforts. China, the United States, Germany and Australia in particular, have prioritized developing a vaccine, despite the fact that it takes a substantial amount of time to gain approval for human use.
Dr. Oranee Tangphao, a physician and expert in clinical research and drug development, who serves as a consultant to several government and private organizations, noted that vaccine development is a long and complex process, often lasting at least 2-5 years and usually costing several billions of baht. It also requires a series of tests and experiments from multi-disciplinary researchers as well as regulatory approval from the government.
Most people are unaware that what is currently available consists of what are called prophylactic vaccines which prepare the immune system to fight pathogens and provide immunity against diseases such as polio, tetanus, hepatitis B, influenza, cervical cancer, and rotavirus. In contrast, therapeutic vaccines, such as cancer vaccines, induce a different kind of immunity against certain parts of abnormal cells to alter the course of the disease.
The development of new vaccines for prevention or treatment must pass through two major phases:
1. Identification of Goals and Objectives. Some important questions must be answered before advancing to the development stage, for example, i) What disease would the new vaccine be used for, or to prevent? ii) Do we have a sufficient knowledge and understanding of the current disease(s)? iii) Do current pathogens have a comparable similarity or difference to previous pathogens that have been studied?
For COVID-19, which is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, there is some scientific and medical information about other coronaviruses responsible for previous outbreaks. However, the development of a vaccine must take into account all of the currently gathered data. Since the COVID-19 disease is new, applying the hypothesis and assumptions from previous coronavirus should be done with caution. Each pathogen may also pose a different level of difficulty for vaccine development.
2. Research on Infectious Agents. An isolation procedure is conducted to help scientists understand which part of the virus has the potential to boost a patient’s immune system. They may then deactivate the virus resulting in the disease not infecting humans while boosting the immune system of the infected person against the illness. This can be considered an initial hypothesis in further developing a vaccine in both laboratory and clinical studies.
As the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread around the world in January, Chinese researchers managed to successfully isolate the coronavirus, allowing scientists to study the virus in greater detail. Because it’s identified as a novel coronavirus (a new strain that has not been previously identified), the initial details about the virus were limited. Meanwhile, the virus continues to rapidly spread in countries around the world resulting in increased fatalities, while more and more countries are urging stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors in developing a new vaccine to boost the immune system and prevent future infections, saving lives in the process and setting the stage for ways to combat future outbreaks.
The development process for vaccines generally takes years of testing and involves multiple clinical trials to demonstrate both safety and effectiveness before they can be manufactured and sold. However, many governments and organizations, including the WHO, are aware of the urgent need to accelerate vaccine development for COVID-19.
Vaccine Development in Thailand
Dr. Oranee noted that most vaccine developments in Thailand involve improving existing vaccines from other countries. However, Thailand is ideally positioned to begin developing its own vaccine innovations given the country’s established network of agencies involved in healthcare and the R&D of vaccines such as the National Vaccine Institute (NVI), and the Center of Excellence in Vaccine Research and Development at Chulalongkorn University.
Developing successful vaccine innovations requires advanced technologies and highly experienced personnel conducting comprehensive and complex R&D. Thailand should prioritize its own knowledge base and platforms empowering researchers to produce innovative vaccines, thus providing improved access to high quality vaccines to patients and consumers, in addition to opening up opportunities for researchers who can broaden their scientific knowledge, all of which will contribute to the economy.
The current framework is an important starting point for the country to gradually develop and produce its own vaccine innovations. With the right strategy and the support of multiple partners, Thailand can position itself to develop innovative vaccines for the global market while also serving national health systems.
“Strong and continuous support from the government can kick-off the necessary systems for the effective development of innovative vaccines with additional support across different sectors. This process will not only benefit the country economically, it will also improve the long-term quality of life of Thais. There is no question there will be another viral outbreak in the future. But when that time comes, it is my strong hope that Thailand is one of the countries that conducts the crucial R&D needed to develop a vaccine to fight against the pandemic,” said Dr. Oranee.
Dr. Oranee Tangphao is an expert in clinical drug development. She holds an MD degree from the Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, and trained in Internal Medicine. A recipient of the Anandamahidol Foundation scholarship for advanced education abroad, she received her Master’s degree from McMaster University, Canada. Dr. Oranee is Board Certified in Clinical Pharmacology (American Board of Clinical Pharmacology) through her training at Stanford University, where her main focus was on pharmaceutical product development. She is a former Assistant Professor at the Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, and a clinical researcher at Stanford University. Over the last 20 years, Dr. Oranee has achieved multiple successes in her career in drug development and has taken on broader responsibilities. She currently holds the position of Chief Medical Officer at a startup in the US, and serves as a consultant for several public and private organizations in Thailand and the US. She is frequently invited to speak on developments in clinical medicines in both countries.