Better Covid Vaccines Are Coming, WHO’s Chief Scientist Says

Soumya Swaminathan Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

(Bloomberg) --New Covid-19 vaccines, including ones that don’t require needles and can be stored at room temperature, may be ready for use later this year or next year, the World Health Organization’s top scientist said.

By Jason Gale
Mar 15, 2021, 12:08 PM – Updated on Mar 15, 2021, 12:08 PM
Word Count: 650

Six-to-eight new immunizations may complete clinical studies and undergo regulatory review by the end of the year, Soumya Swaminathan, the Geneva-based agency’s chief scientist, said in an interview Saturday.

New vaccines will add to the 10 already shown to work within a year of Covid-19 being declared a pandemic. The world needs more immunizations, especially as the virus’s continuous circulation spawns dangerous new variants and drugmakers struggle to meet orders. Only 122 countries have started immunizing people, according to data collected by Bloomberg.

“We’re thrilled with the vaccines that we have,” said Swaminathan, an Indian pediatrician best known for her research on tuberculosis and HIV. But “we can improve further,” she said. “I think, well into 2022, we’re going to see the emergence of improved vaccines.”

The current crop of experimental vaccines use alternative technologies and delivery systems, and include more single-shot inoculations, and vaccines that are administered orally, via a nasal spray, and through the skin using a type of patch. These could bring immunizations that are better suited to specific groups, such as pregnant women, according to Swaminathan.

Read more: What’s the Best Covid Vaccine? Why It’s Not So Simple

More than 80 candidate vaccines are being studied in people, though some are still in the early stages of testing and may not be successful. Companies with Covid-19 vaccines already in use have also begun testing updated versions designed to thwart variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in recent months.

Booster Shots

“We need to continue to support the research and development of more vaccine candidates, especially as the need for ongoing booster immunization of populations is still not very clear at this point,” Swaminathan said. “So we need to be prepared for that in the future.”

The WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunization is reviewing whether people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 need to have two doses of vaccine. Some research indicates that a natural infection works to prime the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, much as a first dose would, making a second injection unnecessary.

Read more: Why Feeling Bad After Covid Vaccine Jab Could Be Good

Giving only one dose of vaccine to Covid-19 survivors could free up more supplies, Swaminathan said, though it could present “practical and logistical challenges in many countries” if blood tests are needed to measure patients’ antibody levels before deciding if a second jab is warranted.

The roll out of safe and effective vaccines is also raising questions about how to efficiently and ethically conduct clinical trials of experimental vaccines, she said. Placebos will be replaced with a “gold standard” vaccine in a so-called non-inferiority design when it’s no longer ethical to use a placebo, Swaminathan said.

Global Trial

Meantime, one approach the WHO is exploring is to compare three or four candidate vaccines simultaneously with a placebo. A similar study design was used to test the efficacy of drug therapies for Covid-19, and may mean trial participants would have an 80% chance of receiving an experimental vaccine and only a 20% chance of getting placebo.

“We are in discussions now with several companies with vaccines in development to see if we could launch something like this on a global trial platform,” Swaminathan said, adding that she’s optimistic such a study may begin in the first half of 2021.

A global trial involving a wide pool of people and countries offers several advantages, she said. Testing vaccines in diverse ethnicities, age groups, and people with different medical conditions makes the results more generalizable, and when the epidemic wanes in some parts of the world it’s often still active in others, she said.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.
Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.