26 May 2020

Covid-19 vaccine two years away, and could be NZ-made - research leader

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 26 May 2020

A Covid-19 vaccine is being described as the Everest of medicine, and the race is on to beat corporate interests to the top of the mountain, Professor Graham Le Gros from Malaghan Institute says.

The government has announced $37 million towards a vaccine strategy with the goal to generate adequate supplies of a safe Covid-19 vaccine at the earliest possible time. 

Of that $10m will go to into local research and $5m will support manufacturing capability. 

Prof Le Gros heads biomedical research at the Malaghan Institute and is working on a New Zealand-made vaccine.

"The only way we can get our economy, our health and our lifestyle back on track is to have a vaccine so that we can start to operate," he told RNZ's Checkpoint.

He said supporting homegrown vaccines and investing in production might end up being the best solution for the country.

A Covid-19 vaccine that was properly tested and available was about two years away, however.

"I say two years, with the best will in the world. Just doing the maths around - you've got to check out safety, you've got to put it into people, you've got to see them mill around, see if they get infected or not. 

"Some things you cannot shorten the timeframe on, and that is injecting and waiting for three or four weeks for the immune response to happen, and then retesting and then testing in lots of people, and then scaling up production. 

"I know overseas, some political leaders have talked about before Christmas. Impossible."

He said it would take some "remarkable breakthrough" to make a vaccine sooner.

'Now is the time'

The government's strategy announcement is a start in the right direction towards vaccine production and rollout, Prof Le Gros said. 

"As soon as we became aware of the Covid-19 pandemic we set to work straight away and we've been beavering away.

"We're learning so much about the virus. Now is the time to build a really good vaccine that will work and give long-lasting safe immunity. And I think we know enough now to do that. 

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Photo: Supplied

He said a few groups in New Zealand were working on versions of the vaccine, while some Australian groups have touted possible collaboration.

"We have some really great scientists here who are equal to any overseas. And in fact, the way the whole world's been globalised now there's no reason to think that New Zealand can't make a vaccine, certainly at the early stages. 

"We've got great scientists, great technologies and great insight and actually, we collaborate with the best groups in the world."

Diversity and intellectual power across NZ science sector 

In the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine there are some groups the Malaghan Institute is "ferociously" competing against, Prof Le Gros told Checkpoint

"The competitive ones tend to be very commercial, they've gone in early, they've actually restricted knowledge because they're trying to protect their IP [intellectual property]. 

"The ones that we're involved in, which are trying to build a people's vaccine - that's the best way to think about it - we're really getting access to a lot of knowledge and information around the world, and that's what's going to be required to make a really good vaccine."

He believed New Zealand had the talent to develop a vaccine.  

"We can do America's Cup, we can play great rugby, we have some of the best IT companies in the world, why not have the best biotech companies, the best biotech initiatives? We can do that too."

The race for the Covid-19 vaccine was the challenge of a lifetime, he said.

"You're called upon as a scientist ... you've been training all your life to know about viruses and know about immunology. I'm an old guy, I've been doing it for 40 years, and now is my time, and my colleagues'. 

"We've got a great team of people in Otago, at Victoria, ESR, AgResearch. How can we lose when we've got such a group of people all working together here in New Zealand?

"The diversity and intellectual power across the New Zealand science sector is really awesome."

If a commercial company did create an effective vaccine first, it would have to be paid for, he said. 

"Often a company will charge what the population or the government can bear. In our case in New Zealand, five million people without a vaccine and no one can travel, and no one can come here, we'll have to pay a lot. So let's hope the people's vaccine and our vaccine initiatives work."

If a vaccine was created elsewhere, Prof Le Gros told Checkpoint his team would keep up their research. 

"What about the next pandemic? I think we've been taught a valuable lesson by Covid-19. There [could] be a Covid-22 or Covid-30. We need to make sure that we have a resilient system that can react much better than we've been able to, to the next virus pandemic.

"We know that as we infringe upon the environment these things are going to happen more and more, or even that Covid-19 might mutate. We need to be able to respond effectively and well, and a vaccine is the only solution."


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