The World Health Organization (WHO), has declared that COVID-19 is a pandemic and 144 countries across the world have confirmed cases of the virus.
Much of the attention has understandably been on the control of the spread using public health and border interventions in New Zealand. Relatively little discussion however has been given on the treatments being developed or available for COVID-19, which may form an important part of the overall response here and globally.
Normally vaccine and medicines development is a slow, risky and expensive undertaking. On average, it normally takes 10-12 years to get the research and clinical testing completed for a single successful medicine or vaccine and over $3 billion dollars in costs. Some estimates show only 1 in 6,000 products makes it through to the end of the development process. So, it comes down to a numbers game - not only the number of experts and collaborations that are involved, but also the number of medicines being developed, tested or repurposed for any disease.
Unprecedented Industry Efforts
The positive news is that according to many involved in the fight to develop effective treatments, including Australia, UK and US-based public and industry vaccine researchers, the extent and scale of the collaborative efforts and the speed of activity is breath-taking and almost without precedent, especially when compared to other recent virus pandemics such as SARS and MERS.
“At last count there are over 60 products, both vaccines and medicines, either being developed or going through clinical testing procedures for the treatment of COVID-19. Overseas, a range of academic and industry collaborations have developed between experts in a matter of weeks in order to fight COVID-19” says Dr Graeme Jarvis, CEO of Medicines New Zealand.
Already there are at least 9 existing anti-viral medicines going through human clinical trials to prove effectiveness in treating the most severely affected COVID-19 patients. These medicines will be used to treat the symptoms and illness itself. For the most promising candidates, results from these trials may be out within weeks rather than several months and the WHO is working with the medicines sector in particular on the leading candidate product. The biopharmaceutical company involved is already working on strategies to prepare their manufacturing facilities to be able to deliver the volumes of that anti-viral medicine needed.
Vaccines are being developed to prevent people getting COVID-19. There are over 35 vaccines being developed, using a range of technologies from standard approaches to innovative cutting-edge RNA and DNA platforms. The advantages of this broad approach is that it increases the likelihood that the world will have an effective vaccine or vaccines available. Some of the technology platforms allow faster development of a vaccine and there are already 3 vaccines that are completing pre-clinical testing and moving into the first phase of human clinical trials by April 2020.
Likely Timing for a Vaccine
Best estimates indicate we are perhaps a year to a year-and-a-half away from a vaccine being available for delivery to the world’s population. In the meantime, a combination of strong public health initiatives and, when needed, use of existing medicines to help patients manage the symptoms of COVID-19 will help keep our population safe.
“While the likely timeline for the development of some of the vaccines and modern medicines seems some time away, we can be confident that the rapid concentrated private-public response to COVID-19 will be effective.
“The best results will occur as a result of collaboration, innovation and open communication between governments and industry participants”, said Dr Jarvis.
New Zealanders should feel optimistic that with both the public health steps in place and existing and future medicines to limit and treat COVID-19, the country will be in a good position in both the near and long term.
Medicines New Zealand is the industry group representing pharmaceutical companies operating in New Zealand. We advocate for the benefits of modern medicines as part of a high-quality public health system. Our objective is to ensure that New Zealanders have access to the right medicines at the right time.
Kristen Edwards, Communications Advisor, Medicines New Zealand.
Ph: 027 534 6461