When Profits And Politics Drive Science: Rushing A Vaccine To Market For A Vanishing Virus

More than 100 companies are competing to be first in the race to get a COVID-19 vaccine to market. It’s a race against time, not because the death rate is climbing but because it is falling – to the point where there will soon be too few subjects to prove the effectiveness of the drug.

Pascal Soriot is chief executive of AstraZeneca (AZN), a British-Swedish pharmaceutical company that is challenging biotech company Moderna (MRNA), the U.S. frontrunner in the race. Soriot said on May 24th, “The vaccine has to work and that’s one question, and the other question is, even if it works, we have to be able to demonstrate it. We have to run as fast as possible before the disease disappears so we can demonstrate that the vaccine is effective.”

COVID-19, like other coronaviruses, is expected to mutate at least every season, raising serious questions about claims that any vaccine will work. A successful vaccine has never been developed for any of the many strains of coronaviruses, due to the nature of the virus itself; and vaccinated people can have a higher chance of serious illness and death when later exposed to another strain of the virus, a phenomenon known as “virus interference.” An earlier SARS vaccine never made it to market because the laboratory animals it was tested on contracted more serious symptoms on re-infection, and most of them died.

Researchers working with the AstraZeneca vaccine claimed success in preliminary studies because its lab monkeys all survived and formed antibodies to the virus, but data reported later showed that the animals all became infected when challenged, raising serious questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Moderna has gotten fast-track approval from the FDA and managed to skip animal trials altogether before rushing to human trials. Its candidate is a “messenger RNA” vaccine, a computer-generated replica of an RNA component that carries genetic information controlling the synthesis of proteins. No mRNA vaccine has ever been approved for marketing or proven in a large-scale clinical trial. As explained in Science Magazine, RNA that invades from outside the cell is the hallmark of a virus, and our immune systems have evolved ways to recognize and destroy it. To avoid that, Moderna’s mRNA vaccine sneaks into cells encapsulated in nanoparticles, which aren’t easily degraded and can cause toxic buildup in the liver.

These concerns, however, have not deterred the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is proceeding at “Warp Speed” to get the new technologies tested on the American population before the virus disappears through mutation and natural herd immunity. HHS has already agreed to provide up to $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca and $483 million to Moderna to develop their experimental candidates. “As American taxpayers, we are justified in asking why,” writes William Haseltine in Forbes. Both companies have attracted billions from private investors and don’t need taxpayer money, and the government’s speculative bets are being made on unproven technologies in the early stages of testing.

The argument at one time was that the magnitude of the crisis justified the risk, but the virus is now disappearing of its own accord. The computer-modeled projection of 2.2 million U.S. deaths issued by Imperial College London (a business partner of AstraZeneca), triggering shutdowns across the United States, was subsequently found to be “wildly” overblown. The model was described in the UK Telegraph on May 16th as “the most devastating software mistake of all time.” The researchers wrote that “we would fire anyone for developing code like this” and that the question was “why our Government did not get a second opinion before swallowing Imperial’s prescription.”

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Isaac Pomerance 4 months ago Member's comment

Hi Ellen, thank you so much for this informative article. Under your premise, that the vaccine's necessity will vanish or that it will be impossible to create, do you see Pharma stocks falling, as this sentiment spreads among personal and private investors?

Harry Sinclair 4 months ago Member's comment

#Covid19 death rates are falling because so many are staying home. But now that restrictions are being lifted there will be a 2nd wave.

Adam Reynolds 4 months ago Member's comment

Yes and Fauci and other experts said corona is likely here to stay. We will probably have seasonal outbreaks every year. There will be plenty of time to profit from a vaccine. Bullish on $AZN, $MRNA.

Dean Gilmore 4 months ago Member's comment

Vaccines can only be rushed so much. Most vaccines took around 20 years to develop.