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The Global Vaccine Race

The global search for a COVID-19 vaccine is well underway, with research taking place across the world and at least six advanced clinical trials likely by the end of the year. The first human trials began way back in May and the promising Oxford vaccine has already proved an immune response in trial participants. Research and deals into potential vaccine options continues across the world, as a number of conventional and new approaches reach an exciting new phase.

The successful development of a COVID-19 vaccine has been called the biggest "bio-tech arms race" of the 21st century. While politicians across the world are trying to make headlines, according to experts, a single recognised winner is just one of many possible end-game scenarios. The details of any vaccine program remain unknown, with a combination of vaccines and boosters possibly needed, and the effects of different virus strains possibly influencing development and uptake timelines.  

Most experts expect a vaccine to become widely available by mid-2021, which is about 12-18 months after the virus first emerged. While patience will be required, this timeline will be a major success if achieved. Vaccines usually take years and sometimes even decades to develop, with the current accelerated trajectory highlighting the importance of what would be a huge scientific feat. The success of any vaccine will be dependent on antibody response rates in trial participants, along with potential side-effects and supply issues as we emerge into 2021.

Various initiatives and funding schemes have been announced worldwide to manage COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution. The US Government’s Operation Warp Speed initiative has pledged $10 billion to develop and deliver 300 million vaccine doses by January 2021. The World Health Organisation is attempting to coordinate global efforts with an eye toward delivering two billion doses by the end of 2021. In a world facing strained political relationships, nations will need to work together in coming months to ensure the successful rollout of a vaccine.

In terms of vaccine development, leading studies are underway by Moderna Therapeutics and Pfizer in the US; Sinovac and Sinopharm in China; Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and UQ in Australia; and Oxford University in the UK among others. National governments are already making deals, with Australia securing more than 84 million potential vaccine doses from UQ and Oxford in recent weeks. The Oxford vaccine is leading the way according to some experts, with a "robust immune response" already recorded in its first human trials.

Once a successful vaccine or several vaccines are developed, there are still lots of questions to answer regarding supply issues and the possibility of combinations or boosters. According to world-leading immunologist Professor Peter Doherty, booster shots of the same vaccine and "prime boosting" with multiple vaccines are both a very real possibility. Questions have also been asked about the possibility of multiple COVID-19 strains, although according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we can "be cautiously optimistic that viral diversity should not be an obstacle for the development of a broadly protective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine."