As the global coronavirus pandemic is raging on, any sign of a solution is hopeful and exciting. With social distancing being successful only in slowing down the infection rates, the world is now anxiously anticipating the development of a vaccination, which will prevent the disease altogether.
Some positive news was published at the beginning of this week about a small biotech company in Pennsylvania called Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which received regulatory clearance to start a human trial for a potential Covid-19 vaccination they developed. The funding for the experimental vaccine came from the Bill and Melinda Gates the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
For the vaccine study, the researchers have enrolled 40 healthy adult volunteers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Kansas City, Missouri. Each participant will receive two doses of the vaccine, four weeks apart. This is just the first phase of the trial aiming to understand how safe the new vaccine is. Results are expected by late summer. If everything goes according to the plan and the results come back positive, the company will be able to continue and assess the vaccine’s efficacy against the virus.
Clinical trials usually take place in three phases. The first one, which Inovio is now doing, involves a few dozen healthy participants. The aim of this phase is to test the vaccine’s overall safety and track any adverse effects it may cause. The second phase usually takes place in the part of the world which is worst hit by the disease. It involves several hundred participants and aims to check how effective the vaccine actually is against the pathogen. The third part does the same, but with several thousand participants.
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Inovio is not the first company to start clinical trials on humans for a Covid-19 vaccination. The Massachusetts based biotech company Moderna started their own trials in mid-March. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said the earliest the US may get a finished product of a coronavirus vaccine will be in 12 to 18 months, and even that would be considered staggeringly fast. Vaccinations can take up to 10 years to be readily available, from the starting point to being approved by regulators and distributed.
Researchers were able to reach the trial phase so soon thanks to earlier investment in understanding how to treat other coronaviruses like SARS, which originated in China in 2002-2004, and MERS, which started in Saudi Arabia in 2012. In both cases, work began on vaccines and was later shelved, as the outbreaks were successfully contained.
Another challenge to be faced is that any vaccine that is proven to be both safe and effective will need to be manufactured at an unprecedented speed and huge quantity. Inovio said that they have scaled their production capabilities, and their current aim is to have 1 million doses available by the end of 2020.
As challenging as it may be, humanity is hard at work to solve this crisis and is united in the hope to overcome it as soon as possible.