Is COVID Vaccine enough and are we prepared for Future Pandemics?

Preparedness or prevention of future Pandemics will depend on how well we understand the interconnectedness of nature, ecology, wildlife, climate change and human activity.

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Capitalism gives an illusion of choice so we feel we have freedom. After a year of pandemic, we now have a variety of vaccines from different pharma companies originating in different countries with varying price tag access. Till November, there were 47 coronavirus vaccines in WHO-approved clinical trials.

Overall it is good news but it all comes down to who gets what and when?

Let’s have a look at all the vaccines that are in the news in India and abroad and the ones that aren’t.

Most of the news about vaccines is dominated by the Pfizer-BioNet Covid vaccine, Moderna vaccine, Oxford university-Astrazeneca vaccine. In India, it is the Bharat Biotech- Covaxin and Serum Institute of India(SII)- Covishield vaccine that is hogging the limelight. Covishield is the Indian version of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines produced by Adar Poonawalla’s (SII).

Out of these only Pfizer, Moderna, and oxford, AstraZeneca has proven efficacy(how effective the vaccine is) and clinical trials (for safety). Many questions are being raised about the approval of Covaxin without complete clinical trials and efficacy studies.

As I write this article, the above-mentioned vaccines are approved for use in respective countries with Britain being the first country to have started the vaccination drive and India gearing up with mock drills for better logistics and distributions.

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There are some other vaccine candidates in India and abroad at various stages of development-

  1. ZyCoV-D: Zydus Cadila, an Ahmedabad based pharma company is working on the DNA based vaccine in collaboration with the Department of Biotechnology. It is in the third stage of clinical trials.
  2. Sputnik V: Developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute, this vaccine is in collaboration with Dr Reddy’s Laboratories in India and is conducting phases 2 and 3 clinical trials. Russia has started vaccinations in their country.
  3. NVX-Cov 2373: NVX-COV-2373 is being developed by Serum Institute of India in collaboration with American company NovaVax. Phase 3 trial under consideration.
  4. Biological E Limited vaccine: In collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, US and US-based Dynavax Technologies Corp. Undergoing clinical trials. Awaited till April.
  5. HGCO19: The novel mRNA vaccine candidate, HGCO19, has been developed by Pune-based Gennova Biopharmaceuticals in collaboration with a US biotech company and is supported with a Ministry of Science and Technology grant. Clinical trials to start this month.
  6. Bharat Biotech’s second vaccine: Another vaccine is being developed by Bharat Biotech International Ltd in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson University, US, which is at the pre-clinical stages.
  7. Aurobindo Pharma vaccine: Developed in collaboration with US-based company- Profectus BioSciences, the vaccine is in the pre-clinical stage.
  8. Sinovac and Sinopharm: These two vaccine candidates from Beijing institute, China and a Chinese company have shown 91% efficacy but further clinical trial results are awaited.
  9. J&J: Johnson & Johnson, a US-based pharmaceutical company has also come up with a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that is a single dose shot and is awaiting approval in the US.
  10. Prevent -19: Developed by Novovax and funded heavily by the US government, this vaccine is in the stage of its clinical trial in the US, Mexico, US, Australia and South Africa. Results will only come by mid-2021.
  11. Soberana 01 and Soberana 02 (Sovereign 1 and Sovereign 2)- Cuba has two vaccine candidates that are undergoing human trials in Havana and Iran.

Are we prepared for future Pandemics?

coronavirusPandemics don’t happen in isolation. They are a result of an imbalance in nature and humans. So the answer to this question has more to do with how well we understand the interconnectedness of nature, ecology, wildlife, and human activity.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the sixth pandemic since the influenza outbreak in 1918, all of which have been entirely driven by human activities.

There are new diseases emerging every year and any one of them has the potential to become pandemic. 70% of emerging diseases are zoonotic i.e they can be transmissible from non-human animals to humans. Up to 580,000 undiscovered viruses carried by animals have the potential to infect humans.

The present human development model is built on deforestation and disturbing the wildlife and ecological balance. When there are no forests, the wildlife will be more in close contact with humans and hence increase the likelihood for disease transmission and more new diseases for which we humans have no immunity.

The same human activity that drives the destruction of wildlife also drives climate change, which leads to rising temperatures causing animals to migrate out of their natural habitats into new regions spreading the disease with them.

The for-profit health model that keeps access to quality healthcare to only a few also needs to be changed. We have seen that most people have not died due to covid but due to lack of timely intervention and medical care.

A better pandemic preparedness needs a shift in global consciousness that challenges the current model of development and addresses climate change. I hope this pandemic has taught us this lesson along with the scientific jargon.

How dangerous is the new variant and do vaccines work against it?

Virus outbreaks lead to stories, rumours, half-truths and it plays on our minds which is primed for fight and flight response. But we tend to forget -Change is the only constant and a virus is no different, in fact, every virus mutates. It is part of its life cycle and those changes are not always a big deal and mutations are not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, those mutations may lead to a weaker virus.

COVID-19 like flu virus is an RNA virus and RNA viruses change frequently. It is also not the first time that a new COVID-19 variant has come, in fact, COVID 19 has been mutating continuously but at a slow pace. The strain was identified in the UK from a sample collected as early as September so it is quite possible that the variant could be already in circulation in other countries but those countries did not know but because the UK was sequencing the genomes of these viruses that it was able to identify it. So far, the researchers have identified 14 strains of SARS COV-2 viruses.

According to reports, the new variant is more transmissible though not as infectious it could still overwhelm the not so robust health care system. But the characteristics and traits of that original strain and its mutations aren’t vastly different from one another.

Will the COVID 19 vaccine work against the new variant/strain?

So far the early reports suggest that despite some variation in the spike protein the vaccine will still work on the new variant. Most vaccines are designed against the ‘core sequences’ of the virus and produce an array of antibodies. So despite the mutations and variants coming, most vaccines will provide long-lasting immunity against the virus.

However, there are multiple things at play here. It’s not just the battle between the virus and the vaccine. We are forgetting that vaccines are only ramping up and mimicking what a healthy human body naturally does, i.e fight an infection. So with the passage of time, the virus might get weaker, more transmissible but asymptomatic or we might gather enough herd immunity with the passage of time and with the help of vaccines, so our bodies will outdo the virus. In that case, we might have a few cases of covid19 infections here and there but will not reach pandemic proportions and overwhelm the health system, hence we will be able to better handle the disease in the future.

Hence it looks quite hopeful that we shall overcome this pandemic!!

The author is a scientist based in Bangalore, India. 

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