15 Apr 2020

Covid-19 vaccine development programme urged

6:57 am on 15 April 2020

Scientists are urging the government to establish a national Covid-19 vaccine development programme to ensure any future vaccine roll-out isn't delayed.

6198722 17.03.2020 An employee of the laboratory of the gene and cell technology prepares a specimen at Kazan Federal University in Kazan, Russia. Staff members of the university began developing a vaccine against coronavirus based on published data on the structure of the virus genome.

Waiting for a safe and effective vaccine to become available on the global market is the wrong approach, Malaghan Institute director, Graham Le Gros, says. Photo: AFP

Malaghan Institute director Graham Le Gros said it would likely take months for sufficient quantities of a vaccine developed overseas to be shipped here because of global demand.

Waiting for a safe and effective vaccine to become available on the global market was the wrong approach, he said.

Professor Le Gros wants the government to fund a programme that would evaluate international vaccines, develop its own and prepare for rapid production for an approved vaccine.

"The vaccine is not just going to land on our doorstep all nice and shiny and cheap in 18 months' time, unless we get really engaged in our defining partnerships, developing our own programme, developing our own capability, because there's going to be such a global shortage of production capacity."

Professor Le Gros expects the programme would cost tens of millions of dollars in its early stages, but said that was "chicken feed" compared to the amount of money the country was losing during the nationwide lockdown.

"We've got some great technology, great people ready to work ... we're shovel-ready to get stuck in."

New Zealand has the facilities to develop and produce a vaccine if it's protein-based, he said. Scientists would have to modify and change the vaccine, as well as "do deals" if not, Professor Le Gros said.

Associate Professor James Ussher from the University of Otago said the government needed to act now and can't afford to wait for a best-case scenario.

"While it could be reasoned that it is better for New Zealand to source a vaccine globally given the high cost of vaccine development, clinical trials, and manufacturing ... the challenge with this strategy is that we do not know when that future will be, what a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19 should look like, and whether countries will hoard vaccines behind a single supplier, and close key pharmaceutical exports."

Both Professor Le Gros and Associate Professor Ussher say they are working with other scientists and progressing discussions with government, academics and industry to ensure New Zealand is not left waiting for supply of vaccines from overseas.

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