Considered one of the few ways to finally bring the pandemic under control, the search for a COVID-19 vaccine is moving fast.
Teams around the world are at work on dozens of candidates in the hopes that one of them — and possibly more — will crack the code in the coming months; passing clinical testing and gaining regulatory approval.
Thousands of people are already rolling up their sleeves for clinical testing, while debates over major issues are underway about issues such as who will get the vaccine first? How will it be distributed? How do we make sure the rest of the world isn’t left out?
From major developments to high-profile misses, here’s what Canadians need to know this week.
Kids may not get first round of vaccines
Once a vaccine is approved, the question remains: who gets it first?
While Canada’s guidelines to vaccine priorities are expected in coming weeks, other jurisdictions are already making their plans known. Many authorities, including the World Health Organization, have said that front-line health workers, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised should be at the front of the line.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made headlines this week when they noted who shouldn’t go first: kids. This is a departure from say, flu shots, which experts almost always recommend for children.
But CDC officials noted that kids rarely have severe COVID-19 symptoms and none of the leading vaccine candidates are yet testing on underage subjects so the vaccine may not be recommended for them at first.
However, according to Reuters, Pfizer Inc. plans to enrol children as young as 12 in their late stage tests, while AstraZeneca plans to trial a small group of children between five and 12.
Read more: How AI could help us decide who’s first in line for any COVID-19 vaccine
Two more vaccines apply for Canadian regulatory approval
And then there were three: three experimental vaccines seeking the green light for use in Canada.
Two more vaccine candidates have begun the regulatory process here: Pfizer Canada, working with German biotechnology company BioNTech, and Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics Inc. both submitted applications this week.
British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was the first company to take this step in early October.
It’s ultimately Health Canada’s call which vaccines are approved for use here, and it’s important to note that approval isn’t guaranteed and even in a best-case scenario is still a way off.
A major reason why? None of these vaccines have even finished clinical trials yet. In normal times researchers would have to wait until they had those final results before hauling their paperwork over to the scientists at Health Canada.
But thanks to the Minister of Health’s interim order, rolled out last month and designed to speed up the approval process for all things related to COVID, all three companies are able to do what’s called a rolling submission, where they’ll just hand results to Health Canada scientists as they go, who can, in turn, make suggestions or ask questions.
The hope is that this’ll make it much faster to get final regulatory approval, which usually takes almost a year after clinical trials wrap up.
Read more: Canada is reviewing its first COVID-19 vaccine application. Here’s what that means
Vaccine before the U.S. election increasingly unlikely
Pfizer said Friday it could file as early as late November for authorization of its vaccine in the United States, in what’s called an emergency use application, which is when an unapproved drug is allowed because it’s a public health emergency.
In an open letter posted online, chairman and CEO Albert Bourla outlined the timelines and safety milestones the company is aiming for. While this timeline could put Pfizer ahead of competitors, the announcement casts further doubt upon U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to have a vaccine ready to go before the Nov 3. election.
Last month, the heads of nine biopharmaceutical companies — including Pfizer — banded together in a pledge to uphold “the integrity of the scientific process” and insist that their vaccines would not be rushed, in an bid to assure the public of an eventual vaccine’s safety.
Read more: Potential COVID-19 vaccine makers speak out in bid to reassure the public
Testing halted on a major vaccine candidate
Johnson & Johnson has had to pause late-stage clinical testing of its vaccine candidate after a study participant came down with an “unexplained illness.” They’re now trying to figure out if that illness is related to the vaccine or not.
The company, which has signed an advance purchase agreement with Canada, said in a statement that some adverse reactions are an “expected part” of a clinical trial, and experts generally agree that these situations — where a study is immediately shut down and an investigation begun — show the safeguards built into the vaccine development process.
Janssen, the company’s pharmaceutical arm, isn’t the first major player forced to take this step, either.
Last month, testing on the vaccine candidate being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University was also halted after a woman developed a rare inflammation of the spinal cord called transverse myelitis.
Testing has now restarted at many of their testing sites but remains on hold in the United States, where officials continue to examine whether there’s a safety risk.
Read more: The COVID-19 vaccine will hinge on human testing
COVAX gets major boost
The international effort to get countries around the world to work together on a COVID-19 vaccine (and make sure poorer countries aren’t left out in the process) got a major boost this week, with the news that China was signing on.
China had initially missed the September deadline to sign onto what is known as COVAX, but a government official said late last week that they were on board after all.
“We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support COVAX,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement.
Organized by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, an organization that attempts to get vaccines to kids in poorer countries, COVAX was designed to do two major things. The first is to function as a global pool of vaccines — richer countries are able to combine their money, invest in a bunch of different vaccines, and then share the pre-purchased doses of any successful candidates.
But there’s a second, critical piece to this: COVAX also raises money as fast as it can so that countries who can’t afford to buy in can participate anyway. A lot of advocates are worried that without this effort, poor countries will be left out, with vaccines going to the highest bidder.
Canadian federal politicians have long said they’re big fans of COVAX, and the federal government has invested a total of $ 440 million — half of which is to buy vaccines for Canadians, and half of which is to support doses for poorer countries.
However, major players like the U.S. and India have chosen not to join and instead are prioritizing their own vaccine needs. So, as a big global fish, China signing on is a major show of support for the global effort.
While it’s not clear how much exactly China is contributing, officials have said they plan to buy vaccine doses for one per cent of their population through COVAX.
Read more: ‘Are people to be left to die?’ Canada pumps millions into COVID-19 vaccine-sharing effort, but fears persist for poorer nations
Canadians cooling on mandatory vaccines
Support for making an eventual vaccine mandatory seems to be cooling, according to a new poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies released this week.
While the majority of respondents in earlier polls said they were in favour of the government making people get inoculated, the new poll found only 39 per cent of those surveyed though it should be mandatory.
That’s a decline of 18 percentage points from a similar poll in July. Just over half now say a vaccine should be voluntary.
The online poll was conducted from Oct. 9 to 11 and surveyed 1,539 adult Canadians. It cannot be assigned a margin of error because internet-based polls are not considered random samples.
Read more: Why vaccine hesitancy may be the next big COVID-19 fight