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 potential vaccines in the hopes that one — 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 are underway about issues such as: Who should get a vaccine first? How will it be distributed? How do we make sure parts of the world aren’t left out?
From why long-term vaccine leader AstraZeneca has been scrambling to explain its results to what we actually know about Canada’s spot in the vaccine line, here are the big stories of the week.
Where is Canada in line?
Most other vaccine news this week was drowned out by questions about Canada’s place in the global queue. As sparks continue to fly in Ottawa, here’s what you need to know to understand what’s going on:
The ruckus kicked off Tuesday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted during his daily press briefing that Canadians were likely to be behind the Americans when vaccine doses were distributed.
This prompted an outcry from the opposition who wanted to know why Canada wasn’t first and, failing that, why the federal government hadn’t negotiated for what’s called a vaccine licence, which would have given us the right to manufacture these vaccines here at home.
Critics are worried that nations like the U.S. and the U.K. might have the edge in delivery dates, given that each is home to a company with a leading vaccine contender, to which they’ve given public funds.
The official counter-argument is this: it’s not possible to know a date yet, as none of the vaccines are done or approved. The government is sticking with its long-standing window, saying vaccines are likely to land in the first three months of next year.
Furthermore, Trudeau maintains that we have enough purchase agreements — seven, to be exact — to still have a very good chance at getting vaccines early, if not the very first.
On Friday, he added that most Canadians are likely to have a jab by September, which is new.
Experts, meanwhile, seem to mostly agree with the idea that Canada is lacking in the vaccine manufacturing department.
Andrew Casey, the head of BIOTECanada, a national association that represents Canada’s biotechnology sector, told the Star that vaccine facilities, which deal with live organisms, are very difficult to build.
Throwing another wrench into things, the front-runner vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, are using a brand new technology that uses mRNA. While Canada can make some vaccines, it can’t make those, Casey said.
“It’s like saying, wine and coke are both liquids, you bottle them and you can drink them out of glasses,” he said.
“But you couldn’t take a coke plant and make wine and you can’t make coke in a winery.”
Canada calls in the army
Trudeau also announced Friday that he has tapped Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the commander of Canada’s Joint Operations Command, to handle federal logistics in distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
This will be “the greatest mobilization effort Canada has seen since the Second World War,” Trudeau told reporters Friday.
AstraZeneca has some good news, and then some not so good
The British-Swedish pharmaceutical company began the week on a high, with the release of promising early results of its final stage of testing — the third vaccine company to do so — but ended with the head of the company vowing to do a new global trial, those same results suddenly in doubt.
To rewind to Monday, the company’s early data suggested that its vaccine, which is being developed with the University of Oxford, could be as much as 90 per cent effective. Doses are also cheaper and can be stored in a normal fridge, which would be a win for poorer countries.
In comparison to the two candidates being developed by Moderna and Pfizer using brand new mRNA technology, AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the leading candidate based on more traditional technology. (They’re using what’s called a viral vector, where they hide a bit of coronavirus protein inside a different virus usually found in chimps.)
The press release revealed that AstraZeneca had actually tried out two different doses, which prompted two different results.
One set of almost 9,000 volunteers got two full doses of vaccine a month apart. The vaccine for them was 62 per cent effective.
A second, smaller group of volunteers — about 2,700 of them — got only a half dose, then a full dose a month later. For them the vaccine was more effective, showing that 90 per cent efficacy rate.
(Some places reported the efficacy as 70 per cent — achieved by averaging the results of the two groups — which some experts have pointed out makes no sense since it was two different doses.)
The scientists in charge reportedly weren’t sure why the vaccine seemed to be more effective in smaller amounts. In fact, giving some people a small dose was an error, even if it was a fortunate one.
Critics immediately questioned whether or not the vaccine should be considered 90 per cent effective, a number which would put it in the same league as Pfizer and Moderna, when that result was only in a relatively small group of participants who accidentally got the smaller dose.
Some scientists also said key information was missing. For example, it was revealed that the reduced dose group included no one over 55, raising questions about whether it would work as well in older adults. Adding fuel to the fire, the age issue was revealed first by American officials, not the company, according to the New York Times.
Questions about both efficacy and transparency have put a dint in excitement over the vaccine — long considered one of the world’s most promising.
AstraZeneca has defended its methods and said Thursday it would do a new global human trial specifically on the low dose regime, but that it would not affect the timeline for approval in the U.K. and Europe.
But scientists might hopefully be able to decide for themselves.
According to the Guardian, Sir John Bell, an Oxford professor of medicine and the U.K. government’s life sciences adviser, said Thursday that he hoped the full data would be published in a scientific journal called the Lancet over the weekend.
Minks rising from the dead. Sort of
Two weeks ago this very news roundup mentioned the millions of Danish minks who were slated for death. Raised for fur, they were infected by a mutant form of coronavirus that, if spread to humans, would derail vaccine efforts, experts feared.
Turns out that the bodies of those slaughtered minks were buried in shallow pits. But the gas created by decaying bodies has pushed some of those dead minks right back out again.
Farmers have reportedly culled 10 million minks so far. According to the Euronews, local politicians have accused the government of using land as a dumping ground, and called for the bodies to be dug up and incinerated. Someone on Twitter declared 2020 the year of the “zombie mutant killer minks.”
Danish Parliament will discuss whether or not incineration is possible on Monday.
Until then, officials say they plan to build a fence.