Covid Chronicles XXVI

By lockdown_exit - 29th Jan 2021, 12:56 pm - Covid Chronicles

This promises to be the year of the vaccine even before the first month is done and dusted. More vaccines cleared by the drug authorities, more of each vaccine manufactured, vaccine shortages in rich countries that ordered copious quantities (twice or thrice what they needed) and virtually no vaccines at all in Africa and much of South America, vaccine phobia where there's plenty available and most of all the fear that the vaccines may not work against newer and more dangerous variants of the virus turning up here there and everywhere like some 21st century Scarlet Pimpernel. 

A fresh Covid-19 case detected in New Zealand appears to be that of the variant first detected in South Africa, yet another example of the new Covid-19 variants which are expanding their global footprint. Twenty-three countries have detected the South African variant (501Y.V2) while 55 have detected the UK variant (B.1.1.7). Research suggests the new variants to be more transmissible, complicating pandemic responses and leading to question marks about vaccine efficacy.

Just as the U.S. government is starting to ramp up purchases of Pfizer's and Moderna's mRNA vaccines to prevent Covid-19, a troubling question is emerging in the scientific community: can these shots protect people against aggressive new variants racing through the UK, South Africa and Brazil? Several analysts have scoured the medical literature and interviewed infectious disease experts in an effort to answer that question. Their conclusion? There is no clear answer. At least not yet. When it comes to SARS-CoV-2, the virus at the heart of the pandemic, "we are in a state of ignorance with incomplete data," said SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges in a note to clients Wednesday. He reached that conclusion after interviewing an infectious disease specialist who is also an official with the FDA, he said. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said on Tuesday that his firm will develop booster shots "every time" a variant makes its shot less effective. Last week, lab tests suggested Pfizer's current shot worked against the spike protein mutation shared by the UK and South African variants. It has not announced testing the vaccine against the mutation seen in the South African and Brazilian variants that may make them vaccine resistant. Bourla said despite thinking the shot will work against variants, Pfizer is developing booster shots. 

Vaccine manufacturer Moderna is to test out a jab against the South African variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. The company made the decision after laboratory tests showed a six-fold reduction in the ability of antibodies, produced in response to the vaccine, to kill the new version of the virus. The UK has 17 million doses of Moderna's vaccine on order, with deliveries due to start in the spring.

And there's trouble in what should have been vaccine paradise. Disputes over the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines are threatening supplies between the United Kingdom and European Union. The scramble for vaccinations in Europe has never been more critical and the tension never higher. In the Netherlands, a night-time curfew that sparked riots this week was one of the more aggressive measures taken to stem the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus first identified in the UK - where a grim faced Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the country had become the first in Europe to surpass 100,000 Covid-linked deaths.

Providing some relief against the shortages, Sanofi is set to manufacture 125 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

As the world awaits Johnson & Johnson's phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine data, the company is prepping for regulatory filings and a global rollout. Even as rivals face manufacturing and logistics hurdles, a top J&J exec said his company is "comfortable" meeting its 2021 supply commitments. J&J's one-dose vaccine would provide a major boost to worldwide vaccination efforts as against two shots for others in the market. J&J expects to report phase 3 data for its vaccine by early next week, execs said Tuesday. 

As the demand for Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca continues to outstrip supply and alternative vaccines struggle to make it out of the pipeline, the world is desperate for new ways to tackle the pandemic. Regeneron says it's offering a potential solution. The biotech released preliminary data from an ongoing phase 3 trial of its antibody cocktail REGEN-COV in people at high risk of contracting Covid-19 because of exposure to family members with the disease. The results justify using the drug for "passive vaccination" the company said. REGEN-COV was 100% effective at preventing symptoms of Covid-19 in the trial as compared to a placebo. Passive vaccination with the drug slashed the overall rate of infection by half. All the infections that did occur among trial participants on the drug were asymptomatic, lasted no more than one week, and showed a "short duration" of the viral shedding that can drive the illness to other people, Regeneron said. 

Most of the world is struggling to secure enough vaccines to inoculate their populations. India has the opposite problem: plenty of shots, but a shortage of people willing to take them. As India rolls out one of the world's biggest inoculation programs, some healthcare and other frontline workers are hesitating because of safety concerns over a vaccine that has yet to complete phase III trials. As of Monday, only about 56% of people eligible to get the shot had stepped forward in a nation with the world's second worst Covid outbreak. Unless the inoculation rate increases significantly, India will fall far short of its target of inoculating 300 million people - or about a quarter of the population - by July. That will setback global efforts to contain the virus and snuff out optimism that a recovery is taking root in an economy set for its biggest annual contraction in records going back to 1952.

Russia and China are carving out global influence with their Covid-19 vaccines, despite lingering concerns about insufficient testing of the jabs. Hungary this week became the first European Union state to give preliminary approval to the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, which has been touted as a symbol of Moscow's scientific prowess despite its patchy healthcare system. Many Russians are expressing scepticism about receiving the jab, with a recent opinion poll indicating that only 16 percent of respondents would definitely get it, while another 24 percent said they were likely to do so. However, the partially tested Sputnik vaccine is establishing footholds abroad, including in South America, where Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia have signed up to receive it.

Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi