As many provinces ease up on some coronavirus restrictions — notably in Quebec, which has decided to reopen some schools — the discussion about vaccines has been increasing.
Public health officials in Canada and elsewhere have been cautioning against getting hopes up over a full return to normalcy until either a vaccine is widely available or an effective treatment for Covid-19 is developed. This must also be combined with rigorous testing and contact tracing.
While vaccines have long been part of medicine, developing specific ones and making sure they are safe is neither speedy nor simple. Stuart A. Thompson, a fellow Canadian who grew up in Burlington, Ontario, and who is now a writer and graphics director over on the Opinion side of The Times, recently polled vaccine experts about what it would take to accelerate that development, and created a series of interactive graphics illustrating the effects of various assumptions.
I urge you to read the article and look at its graphics to get an informed sense of what lies ahead. But the quick newsletter version of Opinion’s finding is that most experts are skeptical about the 18-month timeline frequently being cited.
As Stuart points out, after 40 years of research into H.I.V., “here is what we have to show for our vaccine efforts: a few Phase 3 clinical trials, one of which actually made the disease worse, and another with a success rate of just 30 percent.”
Now that process has been frustrated because H.I.V. mutates significantly. The current coronavirus does not. But the history of H.I.V. vaccines is nevertheless a sobering caution.
On the optimistic side, the Jenner Institute at Oxford University had a head start on developing a vaccine for the coronavirus that should allow it to start tests using 6,000 people by the end of the month.
Most experts assume that ultimately, the world will need several vaccines and perhaps a mix of different vaccine technologies. Canadian researchers in several provinces are among the scientists around the world putting in extra hours to develop a new coronavirus vaccine.
But when we do finally come up with one that’s effective and safe, Canada will face another major issue.
“Even if tomorrow we had a vaccine available, we currently don’t have manufacturing capacity to produce it rapidly,” Volker Gerdts, director and chief executive of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization’s International Vaccine Centre at University of Saskatchewan, told me this week.
Dr. Gerdts’s labs are among those in Canada working on a vaccine. They also received 12 million Canadian dollars from the federal government to certify that their manufacturing systems can safely produce vaccines for humans.
Canada, Dr. Gerdts told me, relies on imports for many vaccines. And while the country has several labs that can make vaccines, many of them concentrated in the Montreal area, Dr. Gerdts estimated their combined capacity at just a few million doses a month.
“It’s going to take some time before we have enough vaccine for everyone,” he said.
Several factors will affect that timeline. Research groups are exploring new approaches to vaccines that will be more time consuming to make in large volumes, for example.
And while the government is funding projects to increase the country’s vaccine manufacturing capacity, Dr. Gerdts cautioned that even the testing his lab is now doing, to show that production will be safe and effective, can’t be hurried without substantial risk. He estimated that the University of Saskatchewan won’t be able to start vaccine production for about 18 months.
Many of the proposed vaccines, including the one being developed in Saskatoon, will be made in fermenting tanks if they prove to be effective and safe. That’s led to suggestions that breweries and distilleries, factories with very large fermenters already in place, could be transformed into vaccine factories.
But Dr. Gerdts dismissed that idea, saying that it would be impossible to clean them sufficiently to safely produce vaccines.
“Just imagine you had a vaccine and you had a fungus growing in it because you had some fungal spores in that room,” he said. “It would be a disaster.”
And if that’s not enough of a delay, Dr. Gerdts said that once vaccines become available, setting up operations to make them won’t be just a matter of following a recipe.
Canadians, Dr. Gerdts said, will need patience when it comes to a coronavirus vaccine.
“We don’t want to panic people and say even if we have vaccine, there is not going to be enough for you so and get your gun now and make sure you get in line,” he said. “We don’t want to get to that point. But I think what we all understand is that Canada needs more manufacturing capacity and that’s being recognized. And I think this is a good exercise for when the next pandemic comes.”
Finally, James Gorman, The Times’s science writer at large, reports that we may all develop a case of the summertime blues. A study by scientists at the University of Toronto and in Switzerland is the latest to conclude that the return of warm weather won’t drive away the virus.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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