The COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed by the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute in collaboration with pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca has long been touted as the vaccine to look out for, if the overarching objective from a public health perspective remained to end the pandemic.
That isn’t to take anything away from Pfizer or Moderna, whose incredible feats in becoming the earliest to report, that too dazzling, early readings on efficacy from large phase-III trials last week cannot be diminished by the arrival of a more conventional vaccine.
The mRNA-based platform for vaccines they have now pioneered may well serve as a glimpse into the future of immunisation drives. The technology it is said allows for greater and faster scaling up in the manufacturing process, and the unusually high efficacy levels: both in the mid-nineties, far exceeding most vaccines in use today, as well as the efficacy requirement placed on them by regulators of just 50%.
Yet as we also acknowledged last week, the mRNA-based vaccine presents significant challenges when it comes to transportation and storage in less developed countries. The ‘cold chain’ that is usually maintained anyway will not do – at least not for Pfizer’s candidate, that demands storage at a mind-numbing, frostbite-inducing 70 degrees centigrade below zero. Moderna’s shots will require storage at minus 20 degrees centigrade.
That is mainly why many parties around the world were ready to hold out for Oxford-AstraZeneca to come in with their results, and this week they were rewarded with a Monday morning note in their inbox from AstraZeneca: the long-anticipated efficacy results were in, and showed overall efficacy from trials in the UK and Brazil was 70%, but the vaccine worked better in people given a lower first dose. Those who got a half dose, followed four weeks later by a full dose, enjoyed 90% protection, while efficacy among those who had two full doses was 62%.
The vaccine can be kept in the kind of conventional fridge used to store vaccines around the world, with a shelf life of up to six months. The partnership is already a part of Covax, the global initiative that is hoping to distribute about 2bn doses to 92 low- and middle-income countries at a maximum cost of $3 a dose. Bangladesh qualifies with ease, and in fact they have the deal signed earlier this month.
Since emerging as a novel coronavirus in the human population almost exactly a year ago, what has surely set SARS COV-2 apart from its cousins, is the sheer speed and efficiency with which it has colonised our entire planet, establishing itself in 218 national jurisdictions and territories. A daunting task lies ahead in the rollout that promises to dominate much of 2021. Beating back a pandemic in its tracks through vaccination itself will be a novel undertaking, calling for extreme vigilance and agile planning. But we are no longer unarmed in the fight to win back our freedoms.