Updated: November 17, 2020 1:10:14 pm
The American biotechnology company Moderna announced on Monday that early results of its large ongoing late-stage trials of a vaccine candidate against the novel coronavirus had showed an efficacy of 94.5 per cent — an outcome that surpassed the expectations of researchers.
The Moderna results offer strong hope that vaccines that would defeat the deadly virus that had until Monday sickened over 54.5 million and killed more than 1.3 million people worldwide were finally within sight — even though they are unlikely to be widely available for at least several more months.
Last week, Pfizer-BioNTech and the Russian makers of the Sputnik V vaccine announced that their candidates had been found to be over 90 per cent effective in preliminary results of phase 3 human trials.
While Moderna does not yet have an arrangement to supply its vaccine in India — where 8.8 million have been infected with the coronavirus and 1,30,000 have died so far — vaccine experts said on Monday evening that it could potentially have an edge over Pfizer’s mRNA candidate.
After Pfizer, Moderna says vaccine 94% effective, but will take time especially in developing countries, where the infrastructure to store and transport vaccines at super cold temperatures over vast distances may present difficult challenges.
“Moderna’s long term storage is at minus 20°C, which is what we do with our polio vaccines. They have published information saying that their vaccine can stay out of minus 20°C for up to a month, so that makes it a much more feasible vaccine to deliver in our programmes,” vaccine scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang, who is a professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, said.
“The problem”, Dr Kang said, “will be cost, because Moderna has said that their vaccine will cost $37 (more than Rs 2,750), which is a lot”. While the vaccine itself is good news, “it is now clear that this is not a public health product for low- and middle-income countries, unless the price is a tenth [of the current price] or less,” she said.
With Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, “we have two spike protein-based vaccines that are good”, Dr Kang said. “So what we need next is a spike protein-based vaccine on another platform that is equally good… All the vaccines that are coming now would be potentially useful for us (India).”
Vaccine expert Dr Davinder Gill was emphatic that “If it really came down to a choice between the Pfizer and Moderna candidates for a developing country, then the Moderna candidate would offer a benefit.” However, Dr Gill said, “I would say that neither one of those is ideal for a developing country.”
This was because, he said, “What you have to also remember is the scale — if we’re looking at vaccinating even 50 per cent of India’s population against Covid-19 with a vaccine like this, the available infrastructure to store polio vaccines will not be enough.”
Vaccine candidates are tested by injecting one group of participants with the formulation and another group with a placebo, and observing how healthy they remain over a few weeks. Moderna has reported that 95 of its study participants ended up getting Covid-19 — among them 90 had received shots of salt water, and five had been inoculated with the vaccine candidate. Eleven of the 95 cases were of severe infection, and all of them were in the placebo group.
The results of the trial were analysed by an independent data safety monitoring board set up by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
The New York Times quoted Dr Anthony S Fauci, America’s top infectious diseases expert, as saying in an interview: “I had been saying I would be satisfied with a 75 per cent effective vaccine. Aspirationally, you would like to see 90, 95 per cent, but I wasn’t expecting it. I thought we’d be good, but 94.5 percent is very impressive.”x
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