The Distance Between Us and a Vaccine

Written by: Carmen Tang | AGF

Social distancing has been the primary weapon in the fight against COVID-19 since the initial spread of the disease’s underlying coronavirus more than two months ago. However, closing down non-essential commercial life and asking people to self-isolate at home have taken a massive toll on the global economy. And they are not long-term solutions if the pandemic persists without new treatments that can minimize the risk of the virus or a vaccine that might eventually eradicate it all together.

Medical breakthroughs of this kind would no doubt be a huge boon to society and help get economic activity back and running closer to capacity. In turn, that would alleviate the biggest headwind facing investors right now and help put equity markets back on firmer footing.

But as clear as that might be, the time it takes for some of the treatments to be developed, tested and brought to market isn’t so straightforward, and they may still be weeks or even months away. And in the case of an actual vaccine, it may be a year or more before they are ready for widespread human use.

There is no shortage of potential when it comes to treating COVID-19 or wiping it out completely, but patience is required to ensure all options being explored are safe and effective.

Despite the tremendous efforts of researchers and biotechnology firms around world to come up with a vaccine for SARS CO-V2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so far there is only one candidate that has entered clinical trials in order to gain regulatory approval.

These trials usually take place in three phases, starting with testing on a small number of healthy volunteers to monitor the vaccine for adverse effects. The second phase involves several hundred people in a part of the world affected by the disease, and the third does the same but with several thousand people.

There are rarely shortcuts in the approval process, although it can be accelerated if regulators have approved similar products before. Take the H1N1 flu, for instance. The pharma industry was able to take the same development approach as was used for the seasonal flu vaccine and it had a candidate ready for trial three weeks following the first H1N1 case in April of 2009. By September of that year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved four vaccines, and the government started a nationwide H1N1 flu shot campaign shortly after.

This time around, the lone SARS CO-V2 vaccine candidate, which is now the subject of a Phase 1 study to evaluate different doses of the vaccine, was developed from scratch using a completely novel approach; as a result, it could take much longer to gain final approval. The company that developed it said recently that it is prepared to begin a Phase 2 study in the fall, but that ultimately depends on whether the FDA requires more data to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

With this in mind, approval timelines for some of the COVID-19 therapies being developed and tested may not be as drawn out, but they could still be weeks away. One of the leading candidates on this front, an antiviral therapeutic that was originally developed for the treatment of Ebola, has already shown strong efficacy against the new coronavirus in the laboratory. Anecdotal evidence also suggests it may help reverse symptoms of the virus, resulting in patients having better appetites and being able to breathe better on their own. Yet the drug requires daily intravenous infusion for five to 10 consecutive days, so broad-based use might be challenging.

Another antiviral drug being investigated in clinical studies was originally approved for treating malaria. Taken orally, it may become the therapy of choice if ongoing studies continue to demonstrate positive results. Early data suggests that it may reduce the duration of symptoms of COVID-19 and the viral shedding associated with it.

Beyond these two anti-viral candidates, other types of drug treatments being tested may reduce lung inflammation and improve lung function in those infected by the coronavirus. As well, the industry is evaluating whether antibodies from blood donated by individuals who have recovered from the virus could lessen the severity of the disease. One company, meanwhile, is developing a cocktail of antibodies against the virus that can potentially be used as a prophylactic treatment in elderly or immune-compromised individuals to protect them from getting infected.

All in all, there is no shortage of potential when it comes to treating COVID-19 or wiping it out completely, but patience is required to ensure all options being explored are safe and effective. Until that time, social distancing remains our best chance of keeping the pandemic in check. Let’s do our part.

Carmen Tang is an Equity Analyst at AGF Investments Inc. She is a regular contributor to AGF Perspectives.

Related: It’s Not If, But When Markets Recover