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Opinion

World must pull together to find and fund COVID-19 vaccine

Asia is making critical contribution as economic toll of coronavirus rises

| Japan
There are more than 220 potential vaccine candidates under development worldwide.   © Photonews/Getty Images

Dr. Richard Hatchett is CEO of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a partnership of public, private, philanthropic and civil organizations that finances and co-ordinates the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.

The world desperately needs a coronavirus vaccine. Without one, populations will face the continued threat of a COVID-19 rebound, trapping them in a cycle of intermittent lockdowns and risking terrible economic and societal damage.

There are grounds for optimism. Teams of scientists around the world are working at record speed to try and get a vaccine by 2021 -- an order of magnitude faster than the traditional timeline for vaccine development. This is a huge scientific challenge and it will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between governments, private companies, regulators and international organisations.

Asia has a critical role to play. Encouragingly, several Asian countries, including Japan, are contributing to the vaccine development effort through government funding of research and development; through the direct efforts of drug companies; and through the sharing of scientific expertise from universities and national institutes. The Osaka University and pharmaceutical company AnGes, for example, recently began the first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in Japan.

There is growing support for such cooperation, with both the Group of Seven and the Group of 20 calling for health systems to be strengthened, and urgent steps taken to accelerate vaccine work. In the face of the biggest public health emergency in a century, we urgently need to build on our momentum and secure funding to support accelerated vaccine development.

The Asia-Pacific region is making substantial financial and technical contributions to this effort. Japan, a leader in global health initiatives, is one of the largest investors in CEPI, which is backing a range of different COVID-19 vaccine candidates, nine in all, to increase the number of shots on goal.

CEPI accelerates vaccine research and development against emerging infectious diseases and facilitates just such public-private partnerships. It combines the resources and expertise of academia and the private sector with the ability of governments and philanthropy to mobilize political will and funding. Japan's support for CEPI has been instrumental in laying the foundations that have enabled the coalition to respond so quickly to COVID-19.

In addition to Japan's funding, CEPI is in discussions with the Japanese government and Japanese companies about how investments in pandemic preparedness can contribute to global efforts.

CEPI is working with the University of Hong Kong, China-based Clover Biopharmaceuticals and the University of Queensland in Australia to develop vaccines against COVID-19. The Korea National Institute of Health, meanwhile, will conduct key clinical trials for another CEPI-backed vaccine from U.S. biotech company Inovio.

We are seeing progress. In late June, the ACT Accelerator, a collaboration between the World Health Organization and world leaders, multilateral organisations and industry to speed development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, released further details of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, or COVAX.

COVAX aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, at all levels of development, that wish to participate. It will require an estimated $18 billion to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of vaccine in 2021, but compared to a global loss of economic output of about $350 billion a month this year and next, it seems a small price to pay.

Teams of scientists around the world are working at record speed to try and get a vaccine by 2021.   © Reuters

Success is not guaranteed. We do not know yet if it will be possible to elicit a strong immune response through vaccination. But the good news is that scientists have been working furiously since the genetic sequence was published in January 2020 and there are now more than 220 potential vaccine candidates under development worldwide.

Governments around the globe need to dig deeper to fund key elements of vaccine development, including taking on the risk of investments in manufacturing that will be necessary if we are to deliver vaccines at scale as soon as clinical trials demonstrate that they work.

At the same time, private sector drug companies -- from small biotechnology businesses to pharmaceutical giants -- need to continue to collaborate in new ways, united in a common endeavor to stop COVID-19.

Regulators, too, must demonstrate creativity and flexibility to compress approval timelines, without sacrificing safety and efficacy. National regulators must balance the need for speed against the risks of acceleration. Working directly with industry to identify the critical problems that must be solved will be essential, as will efforts to harmonize their requirements with those of regulators in other countries. We do not have time for each of the world's regulatory bodies to set its own requirements and conduct an independent review.

Scientists are collaborating on this previously unknown virus on a scale never seen before in peacetime. Their dedication and exceptional cooperation must be matched by international collaboration to provide the necessary funding and pooling of resources to give us the best chance of ending this pandemic for good.

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