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The race for a vaccine

IT WAS perhaps the only single piece of news that investors around the world wanted to hear. As soon as Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced that their Covid-19 vaccine has 95% efficacy, stock markets across the globe went berserk to price in an economic recovery.

The damage on rubber glove counters was real, with a free fall in their share prices since last week, before bargain hunters came in to bottom fish yesterday.

But coming back to reality, putting aside the optimism in equities, how close are we towards getting a vaccine?

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on messenger RNA (mRNA), something that the medical industry rarely approved due to ethical reasons.To put it in layman’s terms, it is the process of taking another being’s code and inserting it into another being.

This is known in the medical field as a chimeric vaccine, based on the Greek mythology chimera, a hybrid creature.

Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine vialsPfizer Covid-19 vaccine vials

So why are pharmaceutical companies going down the mRNA route? Because it is the fastest way to produce a vaccine, according to an industry source.

“Sure, it will react to the Covid-19 virus but for you and your future generations, we don’t know what sort of person or being you’re going to metamorph into.

“It’s the fastest because you just need to pick the three codes in the virus and mass produce it. When you inject this into your body, this provokes your immune system to produce antibodies which in turn, provokes your T cells. The mRNA was actually derived for cancer patients.

“Cancer happens because certain enzymes in your body stop functioning and in order to reactivate those enzymes, it is administered to the patient artificially, which the body tends to fight back or we will mass produce the enzyme inside the body by putting in these codes of genes, ” the source adds.

The source is of the opinion that the medical industry in Malaysia would not go anywhere near an mRNA vaccine and will opt for traditional options, which will take slightly longer to produce.

Universiti Malaya academician Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit says that for a Covid-19 vaccine to be developed within a year is a victory for science and innovation.

“Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching the public. The success of Pfizer and Moderna has given a tremendous boost for the other vaccine developers, especially those whose vaccines are undergoing Phase 3 trials, like Johnson and Johnson, Astrazeneca-Oxford, Novavax, Sinovax, and CanSino Biologics, ” he says in a statement, adding that there is room for other vaccines since no one manufacturer is going to be able to meet global demands.

Dr Lam notes that many rich countries have pre-ordered both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, leaving countries like Malaysia in the lurch. “It is unlikely that Malaysia will have access to these vaccines for general use any time soon, ” he says.

Hypothetically speaking if a vaccine is now available for Malaysia, it will still take roughly nine months for people to start getting vaccinated.

Sources said the first three months is for protocol writing which will then go to the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) for approval.

And after obtaining the approval the company will have to conduct their own trials, which will take another six months.

“It has to undergo these tedious processes because the vaccines from China for example, are not FDA-approved so an independent authority has to check it.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises only two huge authorising bodies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States and Europe’s CE marking, which are in turn, followed by most parts of the world.

“If the FDA issues an emergency use authorisation (EUA), which is what Pfizer and Moderna are aiming for, then people can start using it, although the FDA would pre-warn that it has not been tested by it 100%.

“So for us, it’s a little too optimistic to expect the vaccine in the first half of next year, unless the government is confident about China’s vaccines and start vaccinating everybody here without conducting our own tests, ” the source said.

Malaysia and China have inked an agreement on Wednesday to deepen cooperation over the development of and accessibility to a Covid-19 vaccine.

The agreement provides for Malaysia to be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccines developed by China, knowledge sharing and expertise and to facilitate scientific and technological capabilities to advance vaccine development in both countries.

Both countries will also support the participation of their public and private sectors including universities, institutions, societies and organisations in joint collaborative projects.

The government is also in direct contact with eight vaccine producers and two via the Covax plan.

Under the Covax agreement, Malaysia will get access to vaccines to cover 10% of the population, of which the country is making an upfront payment of RM94mil.

Meanwhile, the source also said what Malaysia should have done at the very beginning was mass testing, such as other successful countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Australia, instead of movement restrictions and the shutting down of economies.

An antigen rapid test kit (RTK) with a 60% to 70% accuracy is said to cost about RM30 per kit, which produces results in 15 minutes as compared to the more expensive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits which is 100% accurate. One of the challenges faced earlier on when it came to testing was due to the non-existence of RTKs then and it would have been costly for the Government to carry out massive testing using PCRs.

When the RTKs came into play around June, this is where the next concern came in, which was the stringent requirements by the Health Ministry. It is said that the ministry is not in favour of antigen RTKs due to its accuracy and companies that have planned to bring in such test kits faced rejections.

An industry player said the ministry is also strict in issuing approvals for PCR test kits, let alone RTKs.

But in any case, the Government is able to fast track for the approval of the test kits depending on the severity of the situation, he said. As the wait for an official vaccine for Malaysia goes on, the perception in the market is that there is still space in the bandwagon and several other companies are said to be weighing their options of leaping into the fray.

Besides Pharmaniaga Bhd and Duopharma Biotech Bhd, there are nine other companies that have announced their involvement or their intention to play in the vaccine field, most of which involves logistics and distribution. On the government front, it has estimated a total of RM3bil for vaccine procurement which will cover 70% of the population to achieve herd immunity.


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