COVID-19 vaccine may arrive latest by end-2021 under ‘most hopeful’ forecast: NCID expert

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Scientists are seen working on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in the UK on 30 April, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — The earliest and “most hopeful” timeframe for a COVID-19 vaccine to emerge will likely be within one year to 18 months, said an infectious disease expert here.

This means the vaccine could be available as late as end-2021 under this projection.

“I think we do have to be prepared that it may not be as fast as we hope that we would like it to be,” noted Dr Shawn Vasoo, clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) on Wednesday (13 May).

“It will be not earlier than 2021 before we see some of the early data coming out,” he added, noting that even then, expecting an effective vaccine to be out next year would be “rather ambitious”.

One of the key challenges in developing such a vaccine is that some respiratory viruses, such as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, mutate and drift, Dr Vasoo explained.

There have been vaccines that are almost 100 per cent effective such as the one behind the eradication of polio, he noted.

“(Right now), we don't know exactly which part of the virus is what we call the most important part that we need to protect ourselves against. Some of the vaccines we have to see, people would choose which parts of the virus to attack.

“There are different approaches, and it remains to be seen which will be the most effective vaccine.”

Dr Vasoo and two of his NCID colleagues – senior infectious disease consultant Dr Kalisvar Marimuthu and consultant Dr Sapna Sadarangani – were speaking at an online forum on the frontline efforts in Singapore to tackle COVID-19.

The hour-long event, organised by Asian Scientist Magazine, was attended by some 180 people.

Dr Marimuthu spoke about his experience in conducting a study on the persistence of the novel coronavirus on surfaces, while Dr Sadarangani shared on leading the effort to study exposure in Singapore's healthcare workers through serology testing.

Dr Vasoo’s comments come amid an unprecedented global race to develop a vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic and allow countries to fully reopen from lockdowns that have battered their economies.

More than 90 vaccines are currently being developed against the disease, which has killed close to 300,000 people worldwide. In Singapore, 21 people have died due to COVID-19 complications, while nine who have tested positive for the virus have died of unrelated causes.

At least eight of the vaccines are in the clinical trial phase, according to a Reuters report.

The European Medicines Agency said on Thursday that one vaccine could possibly be ready in a year based on data from trials underway under an "optimistic" scenario, as scepticism mount over reports that it could be ready as early as September.

Virus ping-pong

The pursuit of a vaccine to treat the coronavirus amid the surge in the number of cases globally has sparked tensions among nations.

Sanofi’s chief executive Paul Hudson announced that the French pharmaceutical giant will reserve first shipments of any COVID-19 vaccine for the US as the superpower was the “first in line” to fund its vaccine research, in an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday.

The French government reacted with anger over Hudson’s comments and said it would hold talks with Sanofi on the issue.

Former and current world leaders were among 140 signatories in a letter published on Thursday saying that any vaccines founds be made available "for all people, in all countries, free of charge”.

"Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives," the signatories wrote.

US president Donald Trump has increasingly looked to pin the blame on China over its failure to contain the novel coronavirus, further straining increasingly chilly relations between the two countries.

Adding fuel to its row with China, US security agencies on Wednesday accused China-linked “cyber actors” of attempting to steal data on coronavirus treatments and vaccines.

"China's efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation's response to COVID-19," the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said, without providing any examples to support the allegations.

In a strongly-worded retaliation, China accused the US of “smearing" and claimed that it is “also leading the world in COVID-19 vaccine research and treatment" and has more reason to worry about cyber espionage itself.

Contrary to the views of many scientists, Trump claimed that a vaccine for the virus will be ready by the end of this year.

Emerging drugs

On the emerging medicine to combat the coronavirus, Dr Vasoo said that doctors here are using remdesivir – which previously failed as a treatment for Ebola – to be administered to COVID-19 patients here as part of clinical trials.

Interest in the drug is growing around the world, with Japan the latest country to treat its patients just days after giving the drug emergency approval.

A trial performed by the US Institutes of Health (NIH) showed the drug cut hospital stays by 31 per cent compared with a placebo treatment, although it did not significantly improve survival.

Others being used to treat COVID-19 here include convalescent plasma as well as arthritis drug tocilizumab.

On the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine – touted by Trump as a “potential game-changer” in the fight against the virus – Dr Vasoo noted concerns about its potential toxicities on the heart and that it would likely not be recommended as a treatment here.

He also cautioned it is a bit too early to say that Singapore has reached its peak of new COVID-19 infections.

“If (the number of acute respiratory infections in dormitories) continues to improve or at least stabilises, then perhaps we can say that the peak of this wave will come down.

“I think while we are hopeful, cautiously optimistic...I think it's very important that we view migrant health with greater seriousness and as we take in the lessons learned after this outbreak...their health is also as integral as to those of us who call Singapore a more permanent home,” said Dr Vasoo.

The average of more than 1,000 daily new cases living in foreign worker dorms in late-April has dipped to an average of about 700 per day in the past week.

To date, Singapore has 26,098 cases of COVID-19, of which 23,758 – or 91 per cent – are foreign workers living in dorms here, where 400,000-odd workers reside.

Some 20,000 infected workers will be discharged and returned to their dorms or transferred to other temporary accommodations by end-May, said authorities earlier in the week.

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