A laboratory technician, who works on vaccine formulation and wears personal protective equipment, prepares stainless steel tanks for the manufacture of vaccine preparations before the syringe filling phase in the global distribution center of a French pharmaceutical company Sanofi in Val-de-Reuil.
Joel Saget | AFP via Getty Images
Paul Hudson is the CEO of Sanofi. The French pharmaceutical company has two Covid-19 vaccines in development – one with GlaxoSmithKline and one with Translate Bio for an mRNA vaccine. It also makes vaccine doses for competitors Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
As the one-year anniversary of the first lockdowns around the world begins, it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is still going on and staying here.
To date, the virus has killed over 2.5 million people and infected millions more worldwide. While vaccines give us hope, we face new challenges as different varieties spread around the world that challenge the effectiveness of currently approved vaccines. As the virus mutates, there is a realization that Covid-19 could move from a pandemic to an endemic one and this is becoming a ubiquitous disease that will stay with us for the foreseeable future. However, now we know how to deal with it.
We need to adjust our thinking from the time the virus disappears to learning how to deal with it so that it becomes less threatening. How do we successfully navigate the road instead of looking for the light at the end of the tunnel? It won’t be easy, but we can do it through variant preparation, continued genome monitoring, data mining and analysis, and purpose-driven collaboration.
Willingness to vary
First, we should assume that Covid-19 will not go away. Although this thought can be unsettling, it is a reminder that we need to be prepared for ongoing boosters in order to receive new variants such as Great Britain (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1) or prevent a completely new variant from being circulated and taking more life.
First Covid-19 vaccines have already proven successful in limiting the spread of disease. However, there are concerns that if we don’t vaccinate quickly enough, we will not be able to keep up with the pace of virus mutations and variants could gain a foothold in the community and cause new outbreaks. Research is still being conducted into how current vaccines protect against variants and whether annual vaccination might be required, similar to the one for the influenza virus.
Our first priority is to get everyone vaccinated around the world. We need to develop boosters at the same time to address mutations as needed. Several manufacturers with vaccines in the market are already evaluating annual booster vaccinations to maintain immunity and treat variants after the first two doses are given.
As with the influenza virus, we need to consider the potential need for vaccines with multiple variants. Covid-19 has been mutating all along, and although we have identified several key strains, there are hypotheses that viral mutations that offer an advantage in transmission may evade the protection of naturally acquired or vaccine-induced immunity. However, this also underscores the importance of multiple vaccine manufacturers as those still in clinical development can customize their vaccines to ensure that their candidates can protect against important new mutations.
To better track variants, governments and healthcare companies need to invest in genome monitoring infrastructure by working with technology companies to identify mutations in the virus. Variations are inevitable, but we need this infrastructure in place to quickly identify mutations and spread this data globally to quickly control the spread.
The UK is the world leader in virus sequencing, collecting nearly 4 million virus samples. Thanks to the country’s regular testing and genome sequencing capabilities, they were able to detect the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. To ensure this data is widely available, the UK is placing its genomes in the global library initiative to share all influenza data. As of January 29, the country has submitted 44% of the genomes in the library.
Data mining and analysis
While genomic testing infrastructure is required to identify new mutations, that effort is minimal if we do not use data and analysis for our health and vaccine systems. In this way, we can improve our logistics for both the distribution and administration of vaccines, and we can quickly track and overcome hot spots.
Analytics companies and startups are using health data mining to anticipate the next Covid-19 hotspots so that health systems not only prepare for vaccines, but potentially make decisions about giving advice to risk groups and reintroducing non-pharmaceuticals Products can expect interventions, ensuring adequate supplies of PPE, medication and health equipment.
Mayo Clinic researchers used data to analyze keywords from Google Trends, including “face mask”, “Lysol” and “test center”. They found that these searches can identify a new hot spot or outbreak up to 16 days before the first report of a spike in cases. With this information, governments can monitor Google Search to better track the spread digitally, and then use it to strategically distribute PPE supplies or redirect funds to areas that need it most – before cases even start to rise .
Cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic has taken place at an unprecedented level. Corporations, governments and regulators have moved at an incredible pace to approve the necessary therapies and vaccines for patients. Former competitors are now working together to bring the needs of patients and the world’s population to the fore. However, in order to bring about a meaningful change, these measures must be purpose-oriented.
We’re working with traditional competitors to make their vaccines so we can get more doses into patients’ arms faster. We didn’t hesitate to help, and other companies should step in and help too. We must act purposefully and put aside “competition” in order to do what is best for humanity.
If we don’t swear to overhaul our old systems, we risk reverting to these outdated methods. Other large companies outside the pharmaceutical industry can also help. Take, for example, companies like Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon that are working with local governments and healthcare providers in the United States to increase vaccine distribution. Some companies like CVS, Walgreens, and others have experience serving hundreds of thousands of customers on a given day and have the expertise needed to enable vaccines to vaccinate patients quickly and efficiently.
The pandemic is constantly changing the way we work. If we learn to live with Covid-19, we need to accelerate our pace and find new ways to work together. Most of all, we need to move forward in a focused manner and work with traditional competitors and non-traditional partners to do the right thing.