The world must also accelerate work on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Scientists were able to sequence the virus’s genome and develop several promising vaccine candidates within days, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is already preparing up to eight promising vaccine candidates for clinical trials.
If one or more of these vaccines prove safe and effective in animal models, they could be ready for large-scale studies as early as June.
Drug discovery can also be accelerated by tapping into libraries of compounds that have already been tested for safety and applying new screening techniques, including machine learning, to identify antivirals that could be ready for large-scale clinical trials within weeks. .
All these steps would help address the current crisis. But we also need to make broader systemic changes so we can respond more efficiently and effectively when the next epidemic arrives.
It is essential to help low- and middle-income countries strengthen their primary health care systems. When you build a health clinic, you are also creating part of the infrastructure to fight epidemics. Trained health workers not only provide vaccines; they can also monitor disease patterns, acting as part of early warning systems that will alert the world to potential outbreaks.
The world also needs to invest in disease surveillance, including a case database that is immediately accessible to relevant organizations and regulations that require countries to share their information. Governments should have access to lists of trained personnel, from local leaders to global experts, who are ready to deal with an epidemic immediately, as well as lists of supplies to be stored or redirected in the event of an emergency.
Furthermore, we need to build a system that can develop safe and effective vaccines and antivirals, get them approved, and deliver billions of doses within months of the discovery of a fast-moving pathogen.
This is a difficult challenge that presents technical, diplomatic and budgetary hurdles, as well as requiring a partnership between the public and private sectors. But all these obstacles can be overcome.
One of the main technical challenges for vaccines is to improve the old ways of making proteins, which are simply too slow to respond to an epidemic.
We need to develop platforms that are predictably secure so that regulatory reviews can happen quickly and that make it easy for manufacturers to produce low-cost, large-scale doses. For antivirals, there will be a need for an organized system to examine existing treatments and candidate molecules in a rapid and standardized way.
Another technical challenge concerns the constructs based on nucleic acids. These constructs can be produced within hours after a virus genome has been sequenced; now we have to find ways to produce them on a large scale.In addition to these technical solutions, we will need diplomatic efforts to drive international collaboration and data sharing.
The development of antivirals and vaccines involves massive clinical trials and licensing agreements that would cross national borders. We should make the most of global forums that can help reach consensus on research priorities and testing protocols so that promising vaccine and antiviral candidates can move quickly through this process.
These platforms include the World Health Organization’s research and development project, the international consortium’s trial network for severe acute respiratory infections and emerging infections, and the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness. The goal of this work should be to obtain conclusive clinical trial results and regulatory approval in three months or less, without compromising patient safety.