Cool heads for vaccine news in waves

Editorial | Mary Ma 22 Jul 2020

There are promising early results among several leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates, but I fear we will still have to bear with the grim reality with greater patience until scientists declare success with total confidence.

Although progress has been steady, the tests have yet to prove successful.

Meanwhile, Hongkongers must stay alert in the grip of the pandemic.

The 61 new cases reported yesterday by the Centre for Health Protection only confirmed the need for everyone to maintain a high level of vigilance.

One of the leading vaccine candidates is Oxford University's awkwardly tagged "ChAdOx1 nCoV-19."

With more than 150 vaccines being developed globally, this is considered the most advanced, with late-stage trials underway in Brazil and South Africa.

Trials are also due to take place in the US, where a high prevalence of infections makes it suitable for trials.

Another is being developed by China's CanSinoBiologics. It employs a method similar to that of Oxford, using a modified cold flu virus to carry genetic material from the coronavirus to trigger immune responses.

A major difference between the two is in the carriers used: Oxford's is drawn from chimpanzees, whereas the Chinese firm's carrier is a weakened human flu.

Both have shown an ability to induce various levels of anti-bodies and T cells.

Two other front-runners are under development in the US and Germany, based on different technologies.

It has been reported that the Oxford candidate may be declared successful as early as September.

It may well become the first to cross the finish line - but I am reluctant to take it for granted.

Despite vast government support given to the various vaccine programs, September is far too optimistic a timetable to accept readily.

As far as timing is concerned, a passing remark by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson several days ago may be indicative. He said he was expecting the country to be largely normal by Christmas - but stopped short of explaining why he was so optimistic.

On the one hand, Johnson was obviously trying to reassure people as British companies began laying off staff as the government furlough scheme for companies to retain workers was gradually scaled back.

On the other hand, he could be pinning his hopes on the vaccine. If - and this is a big IF - the Oxford vaccine is successful, an intensive vaccination program could be seen within a few months.

But this could be an ambitious timeline since, historically, only 6 percent of vaccines have eventually made their way to market after a process lasting many years.

Government fast-tracks will shorten the licensing process but they cannot shorten large-scale trials on humans.

Nonetheless, governments around the world have started signing contracts with pharmaceutical companies involved in vaccine development to secure early supplies for their nationals.

Perhaps the Hong Kong government should also start stepping up its efforts to secure a fair share of timely supplies.

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