Covid-19: The Industry Response – How Are we Doing?

Chair: Clive Cookson, Science Editor, Financial Times

  • Sean Marett, Chief Business and Chief Commercial Officer, BioNTech
  • Professor James Logan, Head of Department of Disease Control, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Kate Bingham, Chair of UK Vaccine Taskforce & Managing Partner of SV Health Investors
  • Rajeev Venkayya, MD, President Global Vaccine Business Unit, Takeda Pharmaceuticals

Clive Cookson, Science Editor, Financial Times chaired a session on the industry response to Covid-19 with an illustrious panel who are at the forefront of tackling the pandemic. The panel was the most anticipated of the day and it did not disappoint! It was a thrilling hour of debate and discussion on a truly extraordinary time in the world. The video alongside carries the session; please read on for some of the key takeaways.

How will the new vaccines work?

The panel kicked off with a discussion on the questions that have been on all of our minds:  How well and effectively will the various types of vaccines work? How do they differentiate in terms of deployment? Who gets a vaccine, what will the goals of vaccination be? How many doses are necessary? Will boosters be needed? Can immunity be enhanced by boosting with different vaccines? Also, we should think about pandemic preparedness. How do we globally make sure we’re up to speed for future pandemics?

Sean Marett commented on how well governments, pharma and regulators are all working together and are extremely focused on safety. Collaboration has been unprecedented. We can learn from this experience – from the type of technology to the speed with which we’ve been able to get from what is normally a 12-year development cycle into 8-months or less. Still, speed is not a blueprint for all future regulatory processes. The panel discussed how some of the regulatory processes being employed could work well in the future e.g. rolling submissions, as well as, or alongside fast track designations. However, the overall conclusion was that product development and approvals would not necessarily go as fast outside of pandemic situations.

BioNTech and its partner Pfizer are in advanced stages of testing their vaccine, and are confident that they will be able to deliver all the doses they have already agreed to provide to governments, including the U.S. and the European Union. The German company is also working with health ministries on transparency and education for the public.

Covid-19’s cunning canine conquerors

Different strains of the same pathogen can produce different volatile chemical profiles. These signatures can even help distinguish between different types of flu and malaria, for example. In the last 10-15 years it has been proven that dogs can distinguish disease through volatile biomarkers. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been training dogs to speedily sniff out Covid-19 on airport passengers. The clever canines can manage around 200 passengers an hour each. Professor James Logan outlined how odour-based diagnostics such as this could be another way to curtail the coronavirus, in addition to the new vaccines and technology coming through.

Hesitantly lining up for a jab in the arm

A further topic of discussion was vaccine hesitancy, an issue before the pandemic, and an even greater issue now, and the importance of transparency to support vaccine confidence. There are legitimate concerns about how a typically decade long vaccine development process can be done in a year or so, without cutting corners and compromising safety.

The panellists agreed that we need to educate people about public health and science so that they can better take charge of their own health, make decisions and be better able to deal with pandemics in future. We need scientific leaders to speak on a local level about how people can get engaged.

Stand up and be counted

Getting people onto clinical trials is a significant undertaking, and the UK Vaccines Task Force’s Chair Kate Bingham said that a national citizens registry has helped ensure Covid-19 trials can be enrolled more quickly, ideally  targeting areas with high incidence, to ensure the vaccine is being tested where there is significant risk of catching the virus. Then, finding ways to measure vaccine effectiveness, through biomarkers that show ‘correlates of protection’ as proxies for efficacy, will help develop trials for future vaccines. There is also doubt as to the value of data from trials on healthy young adults as to how unhealthy elderly people might respond. Human infection challenge trials however, which have been valuable in other infectious diseases, seem off the cards until a reliable and robust ‘rescue remedy’ is available, although they would then be valuable for assessing transmission, when exactly people shed virus and which vaccines or therapies are able to block transmission as well as infection. Kate added that one of the main challenges will be the logistics of manufacturing and developing the most promising pandemic vaccines and delivering them rapidly to the populations that need them. 

Takeda Pharmaceuticals is leveraging its areas of greatest expertise, looking at plasma-derived therapies, including antibodies purified from convalescent patients’ plasma and is exploring repurposing marketed products and molecules to treat Covid-19, and further helping the international effort by being a partner for vaccine manufacturing, especially in Japan. Deals on vaccine manufacturing are in many cases tied up to specific manufacturing capacity and may need to change to prepare for other vaccines, or manufacturing facilities may need to be repurposed for vaccines. Once coronavirus vaccines become available, there is a need for equitable global access. Rajeev Venkayya is also on the board of CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), an alliance to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines which was launched three years ago, and with COVAX is planning to create a mechanism whereby the first doses are equally distributed across countries. If we do this well, we will set a new standard.

The panellists agreed that we need to educate people about public health and science so that they can better take charge of their own health, make decisions and be better able to deal with pandemics in future. We need scientific leaders to speak on a local level about how people can get engaged.

Leaders need to stand up, be visible, provide clear information that is based on science and available through multiple channels, including disseminating information social channels and podcasts.

There is a huge opportunity right now to enthuse and educate whilst everyone has the level of awareness that they currently do.  Stand up for Science!