Vaccine ‘milestone’ hailed as global COVID cases soar

Published November 10, 2020, 6:30 AM

by Agence-France-Presse

WASHINGTON, United States – One of the teams racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine announced Monday its drug had shown 90 percent effectiveness, sending markets soaring and raising hopes of an end to the worst pandemic in a century.


US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said tests involving more than 40,000 people had provided results that were a ”critical milestone” in the search for a vaccine, as global infections soared past 50 million — including an alarming 10 million now in the United States alone.

Stock markets had already jumped after Democrat Joe Biden was called as the winner of the US presidential election on the weekend.

They accelerated rapidly on the vaccine news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up three percent at Monday’s close of trade.

An effective vaccine is seen as the best hope to break the cycle of deadly virus surges followed by severe restrictions across much of the world since COVID-19 first emerged in China late last year.

Tens of millions of people in Europe are living under lockdowns preventing them from leaving their homes, and millions of business owners are enduring forced closures.

‘Much-needed breakthrough’

Curbs on daily life have shredded the global economy but politicians have had few other tools to protect vulnerable populations.

”We are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis,” Pfizer chairman Albert Bourla said in a statement.

The drug, being developed jointly with German firm BioNTech, is one of more than 40 candidate vaccines, but no other has yet made similar claims about its effectiveness.

The companies said they could pass the final hurdles for a US rollout later this month, and could supply up to 50 million doses globally this year and up to 1.3 billion next year.

The scientific community reacted positively, with top US expert Anthony Fauci describing the results as ”extraordinary.”

World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the news as ”encouraging” shortly after warning that the world ”might be tired of Covid-19. But it is not tired of us.”

But others pointed out that no information had yet been disclosed about the ages of the participants in the trial.

”If a vaccine is to reduce severe disease and death, and thus enable the population at large to return to their normal day-to-day lives, it will need to be effective in older and elderly members of our society,” said Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh.

Pfizer breakthrough

A scientist who invented a technique that paved the way for Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine hailed the interim results announced by the companies Monday as “fantastic” and said the pioneering approach had a bright future.

Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told AFP: “I can’t remember the last respiratory virus vaccine that has over 90 percent efficacy,” referring to the rate at which the companies said their injection protected people against the disease.

This is significantly higher than the 60-70 percent efficacy that had been mooted as possible by public health officials, and also much better than the 50 percent most influenza vaccines achieve — though the scientific community eagerly awaits the more detailed results.

Both the Pfizer vaccine and one being developed by Moderna together with the US National Institutes of Health use molecules called “messenger RNA” — an approach that has never before been brought to approval.

The idea was first demonstrated in 1990, but it wasn’t until the mid2000s that Weissman and colleague Katalin Kariko developed a technique to control a dangerous inflammatory response seen in animals exposed to these molecules, opening the way to develop safe human vaccines.

Kariko is now a senior vice president at BioNTech, where Weissman serves as an advisor.

Making the body a vaccine factory

Vaccines work by training the body to recognize certain proteins, called “antigens,” that are made by disease-causing viruses or bacteria — priming the immune system to mount a response.

Traditional vaccines, like those for measles or the flu, do this by either injecting people with small amounts of the virus, or by giving them weaker “attenuated” forms of the virus.

“Those take a lot of time to develop and to optimize,” said Weissman.

By contrast, this newer type of vaccine delivers the genetic instructions to build the antigens directly into cells, so that the human body itself is effectively turned into a vaccine making factory.

The Covid-19 vaccines based on mRNA make human cells grow an antigen of SARS-CoV-2, known as the “spike protein,” on their surface.

Biden task force

Outgoing US President Donald Trump was among the first to react, writing on Twitter: ”STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!”

He later claimed on Twitter that news of progress on a vaccine had been delayed until after the election to damage him.

The US Food and Drug Administration also reached a breakthrough Monday, granting emergency approval to a synthetic antibody treatment against COVID-19 developed by Eli Lilly. Bamlanivimab, which was shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and emergency room visits, is the first major drug to be approved that was designed specifically against the new coronavirus.

American voters handed victory to Biden in part because Trump failed to rein in the epidemic — often refusing to back restrictive measures or even wear a mask in public and repeatedly undermining his own experts.

Biden, who will not take office until January, has already announced a taskforce to tackle Covid-19, as confirmed infections soared past 10 million and American deaths neared 238,000.

”We’re still facing a very dark winter,” he said.

”The bottom line: I will spare no effort to turn this pandemic around once we’re sworn in.”

‘Out of control’

The vaccine news will be of particular relief to people in Europe — the current focal point of the pandemic and the region subject to the most widespread restrictions.

The European Union said Monday it could soon sign a contract with Pfizer and BioNTech for 300 million doses of the new coronavirus vaccine.

”European science works!” declared Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, congratulating the companies after they claimed a breakthrough.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became the latest leader to test positive for the virus, with his office saying he felt well and would self-isolate and continue to work.

Italy was edging closer to a full lockdown, with experts warning of pressure on hospitals.

”There is no doubt that the situation is largely out of control,” said Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases department at Milan’s Sacco hospital.

Grim news kept coming elsewhere, with Russia surpassing its record for daily infections again Monday.

Hungary is now one of the hardest-hit countries in terms of deaths proportionate to its population, and the government announced new national restrictions to come into force Wednesday.

Portugal meanwhile entered a state of emergency that will see curfews imposed on most of the population.

In France, which has imposed nationwide stay-at-home orders and is clocking more than 40,000 cases a day, the central bank revised its expectations of the damage wrought by the curbs.

”Before the second wave, we thought the recession would be a little less than nine percent, we think today that for 2020 as a whole it will be between nine and 10 percent,” Banque de France chief Francois Villeroy de Galhau said.

Meanwhile, vaccine development took a hit Monday when Brazil’s health regulator announced it had suspended clinical trials of a Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccine — one of the most advanced vaccine candidates — after an ”adverse incident” involving a volunteer recipient.