By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
A record batch of vaccines are being produced around the world for the upcoming flu season. Many doctors are urging people to get a flu shot to prevent a dual pandemic that could collapse health care systems.
Scientists and governments also hope to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine soon.
But given Germany’s track record with the flu vaccine, getting enough Berliners to be vaccinated may prove a challenge. A 2018 study by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found no member state met its target of inoculating its vulnerable populations against influenza.
And the reluctance to try a new, COVID-19 vaccine may be even higher. The fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps and that took four years. This one could be ready in less than a year, which is likely to raise questions.
Below are excerpts from KCRW Berlin’s interview with Dr. Leif Erik Sander, an infectious disease doctor at the Charite University Hospital in Berlin, who does research on the novel coronavirus and treats patients with COVID-19:
Q: Why is getting a vaccine so important?
DR. SANDER: The only way that infectious diseases have been eliminated or eradicated, as we say, from the planet, has been through vaccination and through building a herd immunity by means of vaccination. So it’s unclear whether we will be successful at doing so with the novel coronavirus. But this would be the only — to me — the only concept by which we could eliminate the disease, by building immunity to a certain extent within the population, such that the number of subjects that are susceptible to the infection is so low that the chain of infections is terminated.
Q: Will the COVID-19 vaccine be more like the flu vaccine, that sometimes only provides limited protection? Or is it going to be more like the smallpox vaccine, a disease that’s been eradicated?
DR. SANDER: So what we know is that the vaccines that have proceeded to Phase 3 trials, that they have shown to elicit pretty robust immune responses in most of the individuals that have been immunized.
However, we don’t have long term data, so we don’t know how long lived such an immune response will be. And also, the other thing to keep in mind is that nobody knows what type of immunity and how much and how high does the level of antibodies have to be for it to be effective to protect from infection.
So we know that coronaviruses are quite notorious for being able to reinfect people. Now, we hope that the vaccines that are being created will be able to induce a durable immunity such that they will afford protection for a longer period of time.
But it’s really hard to predict whether they’re going to be as effective as say, smallpox or measles virus vaccines. My guess would be that it’s a bit harder to immunize against the coronaviruses. However, given the variety of vaccines that is currently undergoing testing — very different concepts and types of vaccines that are being tested — I’m very optimistic that there are gonna be a few candidates that are going to be able to provide long-lived and protective immunity.
Q: We hear a lot of predictions about when a vaccine against COVID-19 will be ready. Do you have any thoughts as to when that might be in Germany?
DR. SANDER: Predictions are hard to make, especially when, you know, some countries seem to be cutting corners at the moment, trying to fast track the process.
I think a realistic scenario would be that we would have the very first vaccines licensed early next year. We’ll probably have the results from Phase 2 trials, you know, in the fall late 2020, we will know whether some of the most advanced vaccines actually are effective in preventing infections.
Q: You mentioned cutting corners. That’s the allegation against Russia when Vladimir Putin announced his country had a COVID-19 vaccine, but which hadn’t been through Phase 3 trials. What does that mean? What is lacking?
DR. SANDER: There is the example of the Russian vaccine, there [are] also two candidates from China that have been given to two people outside of clinical trials. That’s usually not allowed. So you would normally go through a process where the number of participants in the different trials would increase. And what’s called the Phase 3 trial is where you test whether the product is actually effective at, you know, whatever the promises in this case, protecting against coronavirus infection.
But you would also, given that you test on a larger number of subjects or participants, you would also once again have a close look at the safety of the product because the previous trials are usually done on a limited number of participants.
Dr. Sander adds that doesn’t mean the Russian strategy of using a viral vector vaccine is wrong. That kind of vaccine works by using an altered, harmless virus to trigger people’s immune response against the novel coronavirus and Russia has developed similar vaccines that way against Ebola, among other diseases.