Cost of Living

The economics of finding a vaccine for COVID-19

Fresh injections of funding into vaccine research from governments and philanthropic organizations around the world have them hoping more money could help overcome the usual financial constraints of immunization research.

Financial challenges to finding a coronavirus vaccine are significant but not insurmountable

Scientists at VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon developed a vaccine for a strain of coronavirus that killed 10 million pigs in North America. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
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Scientists are pushing hard to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, with fresh injections of funding from governments and philanthropic organizations around the world that they hope will help overcome the usual financial constraints of immunization research.

The Canadian government is funnelling $2.7 million into vaccine research, while the U.S. has committed more than $3 billion for research and development of coronavirus vaccines, test kits and therapeutics. And $836 million is specifically going to the National Institutes of Health, which conducts coronavirus vaccine research.

An Israeli scientist works at a laboratory at the MIGAL Research Institute in northern Israel on March 1. Efforts are underway there to produce a vaccine against COVID-19, adapted from another for infectious bronchitis virus. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty)

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organizations is investing more than $23 million US in the development of new vaccines against COVID-19.

Will all that extra cash help researchers meet ambitious timelines? 

The answer is yes, with a "but" attached.

With financial support, labs can ramp up their efforts. And the more scientific brain power applied to the problem the better, says Charu Kaushic, an immunologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and the scientific director for the Institute of Infection and Immunity at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. 

"Scientists have different ideas and we don't know which one will work out. So, lots of money getting thrown at the problem is helping, because we have lots of backup possibilities," Kaushic said.

Studying deadly pathogens costs millions

Advancing a potential vaccine against an epidemic infectious disease to clinical trials can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with an average failure rate of 94 per cent, according to a 2018 analysis of 224 vaccine candidates.

Clinical trials are so expensive that, in the business, this stage of research is known as the "valley of death," says Paul Hodgson at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) in Saskatoon.

Scientists at the centre recently received $999,792 from the federal government to help find a COVID-19 vaccine.

"Obviously, with the ongoing pandemic, we are working as hard as we physically can," said Hodgson.

But money isn't the only challenge. Infectious disease experts caution vaccines take time. 

Could a vaccine be ready in a year?

The timeline for vaccine development has been the subject of some confusion in recent weeks. 

During a White House briefing in early March, U.S. President Donald Trump mistakenly suggested a much faster timeline than officials had in mind.  

"I've heard very quick numbers. A matter of months and I've heard pretty much a year would be an outside number. So I think that's not a bad… that's not a bad range," he said at the press briefing.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, following a briefing at the Vaccine Research Center on March 3. (Leah Mills/Reuters)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, quickly interjected.

"So, he's asking the question: When is it going to be deployable? And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to year and a half, no matter how fast you go."

Other experts are also eager to make it clear that vaccine trials are a complex process.

You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant … these things do take time.- Bruce Gellin, Sabin Vaccine Institute

"I think that 12 to 18 months is is optimistic," said Bruce Gellin, head of the global immunization program at the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a non-profit in Washington D.C.

He borrowed an analogy from billionaire investor Warren Buffett on startups.

"Warren Buffett says no matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time. You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. And I think that's an important piece of this, that these things do take time," said Gellin.  

What could be 'a pretty amazing model'

The first human trial of an experimental vaccine to prevent COVID-19 has already started, thanks to an American biotech company, Moderna, that is working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. 

Eight healthy volunteers got the jab this week in Seattle. 

CEPI is funding the vaccine. The non-profit's goal is to speed up the development and manufacture of vaccines using public-private partnerships.  

Immunologist Charu Kaushic called it a "good trial" of whether vaccines can be expedited. 

"If this works out then that will be a pretty amazing model," said Kaushic.

Vaccines for emerging diseases haven't always been attractive investments for big pharmaceutical companies, she said. By the time a vaccine is licensed, an outbreak may get contained.

A model of a coronavirus vaccine design is seen on a screen at the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/Bloomberg/Getty)

Kaushic pointed to the SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic that killed 44 Canadians in 2003, as an example. 

"You know, the scientists scrambled, tried to put something together, a couple of promising candidates came out. Meanwhile, you know, the SARS epidemic died out. We haven't seen SARS since then. So those vaccines are sitting in freezers somewhere, because nobody wants to manufacture them," she said. 

Kaushic hopes organizations like CEPI can help bridge that gap. 


Written and produced by Allison Dempster, with Falice Chin and files from Reuters. 
Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or download the Cost of Living
 podcast.

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