Early last month, reports said US-based Scottish scientist Dr Kate Broderick was actively developing a vaccine against Covid-19 and the speed of development was “unprecedented”. This, and the fact many others around the world are looking at developing Covid-19 vaccines, is extremely promising. However, even if trials are successful and regulatory requirements adapted to allow for extremely rapid approval, a vaccine is unlikely to be available until the end of the year at the earliest.
Vaccines are a key therapeutic strategy in targeting disease and the first recognised one was the development of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner in 1796. Yet the medical revolution of vaccination is something we almost take for granted.
We are vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella when children and also get a regular tetanus vaccination. More recently adolescent children are being vaccinated against human papilloma virus, the agent associated with a significant risk of developing cervical and other cancers.
Susceptible individuals now get yearly flu vaccinations. When travelling abroad we may also get vaccinations against hepatitis, yellow fever and the like. However it must be remembered that for some diseases there is no globally recognised vaccine (malaria and HIV for example), although many trial vaccines have been developed and tested.
People also often think of vaccines as being just against infectious diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. However their potential could be even further reaching – for example there are vaccines in development against cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, which aren’t caused by infectious agents. So it’s clear that, when it comes to vaccinations innovation continues to thrive as the focus shifts to different areas of need.
In 2015 Marks & Clerk published a report with a section on vaccine development which showed that, although the total number of new patent filings in the vaccine field remained relatively constant between 2004 and 2012 (about 1,200 per year), vaccines against bacterial infections was the prime focus. We now, however, face a pandemic caused by a virus.
It’s more difficult to provide vaccines against rapidly evolving viruses such as Coronavirus – and also Zika, SARS and Ebola, which tend to pop up unexpectedly and can be in a different form to the previous outbreak. Similarly, while we have vaccines against the flu virus, these are still relatively strain-specific vaccines rather being able to immunise against any type of flu.
Given the current situation, it seems inevitable further research and development into vaccines will be directed once more towards vaccines against viruses. Already some 35 companies and academic institutions are reportedly working on creation of a vaccine in the fight against Covid-19, with one human trial set to begin imminently. Australian scientists are even using the largest particle accelerator in the southern hemisphere to better understand the structure of the proteins in a virus in a bid to fast-track vaccine development.
Any trials which show promising results will still, of course, need to go through regulatory approvals. Mass production presents the next challenge. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see the global research effort, international collaboration and sharing of open data taking place in a bid to find a vaccine.
This article first appeared on The Scotsman in April 2020. For further information, please go to www.scotsman.com.