Amid back-to-school jitters and fears of a possible second wave of COVID-19 this fall, something new is in the air: a budding optimism that the end of the pandemic could be in sight.
Canada has now signed advance purchase deals with four international companies to potentially produce up to 200 million COVID-19 vaccines. One of those companies, Moderna, is on track to have results from its Phase 3 trials as early as November. Another, Novavax, has produced a vaccine candidate that in Phase 1 trials produced antibodies in patients that were four times as high as in people who had recovered from COVID-19.
Unprecedented global cooperation and innovation means dozens of possible vaccines, using a variety of different approaches, have shown promising early results and are now being tested on humans to determine whether they are safe and effective.
Vaccine companies are beginning production even before knowing whether their candidate will be approved. Advance purchase deals with countries such as Canada are allowing them to do that. The result is that some vaccines will be available as soon as they are approved.
Those are among reasons Alan Bernstein, one of Canada’s leading scientists and a member of the Canadian COVID-19 task force, is optimistic that there will be at least one effective, safe vaccine by the end of this year that will begin rolling out around the world early next year.
“I am actually quite optimistic that we will have a vaccine and it will be distributed to the whole world as quickly as possible in 2021, perhaps bleeding into 2022.”
Bernstein, who is president and CEO of the Canadian-based global research organization CIFAR, made that point in an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine, published this week.
“I don’t know which of the vaccine candidates undergoing clinical testing in humans will ultimately be shown to be safe and effective. But the encouraging news is that all of the vaccine candidates that have entered trials in humans so far are safe and have elicited high levels of antibodies against COVID-19,” he wrote.
“The COVID-19 story illustrates the tremendous capacity and speed of science in the 21st century and the power of international collaboration.”
In an interview, Bernstein said Canada is well placed to have early and effective vaccines and to be able to easily distribute them.
In reaching advance purchase agreements with a number of companies, the Canadian government is hedging its bets that at least one of those vaccines will be ready early. The companies involved — Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax and Johnson and Johnson — are using different and innovative approaches to create a vaccine that will protect people from COVID-19.
That diversity increases the likelihood of one or more successful vaccine, Bernstein said.
“We have got what we wanted — a diverse portfolio of vaccines based on different platforms. We have now signed those deals and there are more coming.”
Bernstein noted that Canada has among the lowest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the industrialized world and high trust in the health system. It also has a good track record of distributing and administering vaccines through the annual influenza vaccine campaign, all of which bode well for getting vaccines into Canadian arms once they are approved.
But his optimism about vaccine development is clouded by concerns about the fair distribution of those vaccines around the world, especially to parts of the developing world.
Canada is among countries that have contributed to international efforts to make sure poorer countries have quick access to COVID-19 vaccines when they are available.
But Bernstein said Canada must do more. He suggests buying equal amounts of vaccine for poorer countries as for Canadians.
“If you think of the pandemic as a house fire, say a grease fire in your kitchen, it spreads really quickly. If you want to make sure you put the fire out, it has to be out in every room in your house. If any embers are burning, it will flare up.”
The pandemic began with just one case, he notes, and has spread to millions.
“Unless we get rid of it everywhere, not just in Canada, we have not got rid of it. Say we don’t choose to buy vaccines for Africa or the Caribbean, is nobody going to travel? It is in our selfish interest to get rid of it and it’s also the right thing to do.”
In a perfect world, he added, all countries would pool their vaccine supplies and make sure the most vulnerable — including front-line workers — get vaccinated first.
Bernstein noted that the United States has long played the role of leader in such global crises. If it does not step up to the plate to make sure vaccines get distributed around the world, Bernstein said countries such as Canada must take the lead.
Canada should also use what it has learned during the pandemic to prepare for the next one, he said.
“There will be another pandemic. It would be foolish to think there won’t be.”
And, despite his optimism about the progress of vaccines, Bernstein said he is worried that in those intervening months, many more people will get sick and die from COVID-19.
“This disease is not one that anybody wants to get. I think we have underestimated the severity of the disease and the lingering complications for many people. It is not like the flu. This is a serious disease.”