Further vaccine R&D is critical to end the devastating COVID-19 pandemic

Frederik Kristensen
This article first appeared on GLOPID-R's website.

Over the course of 2021, the world has witnessed and dramatically benefited from a game-changing global COVID-19 vaccine response. Over 6 billion doses of multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out to date, with real-world data showing their tremendous impact in protecting against severe symptoms, hospitalisations, and deaths. They are vital tools for getting our lives, our societies, and economies back on track.

Among the billions of vaccines already administered are doses delivered through COVAX, the multilateral initiative—which CEPI co-leads—set up and implemented during the pandemic to enable global access to life-saving vaccines. COVAX has already achieved significant progress, including the rollout of 300 million doses to 143 countries. However global inequity remains unacceptable, and must be urgently tackled.

In addition to the access challenges, we are also living in a constantly changing world, where variants which threaten to impact vaccine efficacy continue to emerge.

It is science that we must once again turn to so that we can remain one step ahead of the virus. Increased investment in ongoing vaccine R&D efforts will enable COVAX to deliver on its promises and ensure that our vaccines remain safe and effective against the emerging SARS-CoV-2 strains.

As part of our $3.5bn plan to end the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks, CEPI is leading on this concerted R&D push to:

1) Develop a better understanding of the performance of existing COVID-19 vaccines, for example through gathering data looking at the potential to ‘mix and match' doses of vaccines with the University of Oxford, and funding studies to assess the immune response generated by vaccines in specific populations, like immunocompromised patients (with Oslo University Hospital and partners). This additional data will allow us to ‘get smart' and use our tools for maximum impact.

2) Enhance the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines targeted to protect against newly emerging variants of concern, as well as those with specific design features like vaccines as nasal sprays, or vaccines that don't require complex cold-chains. CEPI has already funded the development of next-generation vaccine candidates with SK bioscience, VBI Vaccines, University of Hong Kong, Zerun Biotech, and Gritstone Bio, and has run a call to advance broadly protective vaccines against new emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants.

As new candidate vaccines progress, it is imperative that Governments, vaccine developers, and manufacturers commit to making their approved vaccines available as comparator vaccines to allow for these potentially life-saving clinical trials to continue.

3) Increase the number of vaccines available so that we can increase global supply and, ultimately, protect vulnerable populations through COVAX.

We have come a tremendous way in such little time and we cannot afford to lose on the gains we have made against this unforgiving virus.

Science underpins the success of our global pandemic response. It is imperative that it continues.

Opportunities to get involved in CEPI's research and calls for research proposals are available here.