Fact check: Is a COVID-19 vaccine really just around the corner?

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 27 2020 06:10 PM | Updated as of Jul 27 2020 06:37 PM

In this file photo Dr. Nita Patel, Director of Antibody discovery and Vaccine development, lifts a vial with a potential coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 20, 2020, one of the labs developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, COVID-19. The US on July 7, 2020 announced it was providing $1.6 billion in funding for the development and manufacture of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate produced by biotech firm Novavax, the largest amount awarded under Operation Warp Speed. Separately, the US also said it was providing $450 million to Regeneron for its experimental COVID-19 treatment and prophylaxis, a combination of two antibodies. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP

MANILA — “Do not despair. The vaccine is around the corner," so claims President Rodrigo Duterte during his 5th State of the Nation Address on Monday. 

“Sooner and not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest,” he added.

Duterte said he also asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to give the Philippines priority access if Beijing discovers a vaccine against the respiratory disease which originated in Wuhan, China.

However, a vaccine could take up to decades to develop, depending on the complexity of the virus, experts have earlier said. 

While many institutions are now racing to be the first to produce a vaccine that is safe and effective, Philippines may not immediately roll out a vaccination program. 

Dr. Nina Gloriani, head of the Department of Science and Technology’s vaccine technical panel, said last week the Philippines' earliest access to a vaccine is probably in 2021.

“I think it would [be] early 2021,” Gloriani told ABS-CBN News last week. 

The vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, one of the frontrunners of the vaccine race, is said to be made available globally by the end of the year.

“That (late 2020) is what Moderna and Oxford AstraZeneca are saying. 4th quarter of 2020. That is for them. That will come in later (for us),” she said in Filipino. 

Gloriani explained that vaccines often take 10-14 years before being available for commercial sale. 

She said the biotech companies and universities have been able to expedite the process by doing overlapping trials for animal and human tests.

“Nagooverlap sila para mabilis andun ang lahat ng precautions para magawa ito,” she said.

(They are overlapping to make it faster. But all precautions are being done.)

Gloriani said it also helps that some of the developers are using tried and tested technologies that are able to skip or quickly pass certain phases in testing.

VACCINES FROM CHINA

Duterte said he will only allow face-ta-face classes perhaps in January, “thinking by December we would have the vaccine.”

He said he had already asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for help, either through access to their vaccine or through credit.

Currently, the Philippine government only has direct discussions with vaccine companies from China and Taiwan. The following already have the approval of the Interagency Task Force on COVID-19:

China
* Chinese Academy of Science - Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health
* SINOPHARM: Wuhan Institute and Beijing Biologicals Institute
* SINOVAC Biotech Ltd.
Taiwan
* Adimmune Corporation
* Academia Sinica

Based on the latest release of the World Health Organization, Sinovac, Sinopharm, and the Oxford vaccines are the only ones that have reached the Phase 3 trials, which involve large-scale testing to check the efficacy of the vaccine.

Because the virus first spread in China, the country’s laboratories are said to have had an advantage in the development of treatments and vaccines.

Gloriani said they are now preparing for clinical trials by August. She said they will most likely use the vaccines from China since they are IATF-approved already although they preferred those used in the World Health Organization’s clinical trials.

“Mas mabuti kung WHO Solidarity Trial kasi mas mabilis ang pag-follow up nito, pagmonitor and in 3-6 months we will have some parang interim analysis kung pwede ba ito o aalisin natin,” she said.

(It is better if we start with the WHO Solidarity Trial because their follow-up is quick. There is monitoring for 3 to 6 months then we will have an interim analysis if it works or we should remove it.)

A similar process is already being done for possible COVID-19 treatments, with some off-label drugs already being removed by the WHO from the options. The WHO not only uses multiple drugs for testing but also taps multiple countries.

But the WHO has repeatedly said that countries can already stop the virus through strong leadership, community engagement and a comprehensive strategy.

Gloriani also pointed out that the vaccine is not expected to have 100% efficacy.

“Actually we’re looking at 70 to 80% for now,” she said, explaining that individuals may react differently to the vaccine, with some not responding to it.

She said there will be 15 to 20% of the population who will not be protected.

“We do not want to give false hope,” she said.

Gloriani said this is why it is still important to practice proper hygiene, physical distancing and the wearing of face masks to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.