Covid-19 research built on decades of research to produce safe and effective vaccines in about a year. The effort was a confluence of elements, said John Trizzino, executive vice president and chief commercial and business officer of Novavax. In addition to the scientific foundations of the vaccines themselves, logistics and manufacturing also came into play. But the next time, things may not play out the same way. The high efficacy seen with the first Covid-19 vaccines could be hard to replicate for other viruses.
“There are other infectious diseases out there that are even harder to solve than Covid-19,” Trizzino said. “We always challenge ourselves to do better.”
Trizzino made his comments at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual meeting in San Diego. The Tuesday panel, titled “Stopping the Next Pandemic Before It Starts: What We’ve Learned,” also included Emma Wheatley, director, access and partnerships, at the Coalition for Epidemic Pandemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Matthew Hepburn, director of Covid vaccine development in the Department of Defense Countermeasures Acceleration Group.
One of the ways that the vaccine development timeline was shortened was by doing certain things in parallel, including aspects of the manufacturing process, Hepburn said. Much still needs to be learned about the current manufacturing processes and the ways that they can be improved. But each time that a vaccine is made that is similar to the ones based on messenger RNA, it helps to make that process more routine.
“The next product is so similar to the previous product that there is a lot of confidence in the manufacturing going forward,” Hepburn said.
Wheatley said it’s important that future plans focus less on global supply chains and more on regional ones. Having supply chains rooted in a region will change the thinking about health security, she explained. Hepburn said that manufacturing and distribution still need to be solved. Manufacturing can be made more distributed, which is one way of making vaccines more widely accessible. Communication about these efforts is also important, Hepburn said. Upon first seeing the efficacy of the Covid vaccines, he recalled having a moment of optimism that these results would change people’s sentiments about all vaccines. But that wish proved to be unrealistic. Hepburn noted that there are some places where, despite an increase in Covid vaccine uptake, there is a decline in other vaccinations.
“I find that tragic,” he said. “I think what we need to do, which is hard from mostly a government standpoint, it requires a lot of collaboration, we need to reach people where they are. We need to bring them along on the journey.”
Hepburn recently visited a North Carolina vaccine clinic. The most powerful message he heard came from the county health officer, who told people that he lives in the community and goes to a local church. That connection made the reception to the vaccine message very different. The trust that was built up can have broader impact, he said.
This local approach that works in a small North Carolina community also applies beyond U.S. borders. Wheatley noted the challenges of getting young adults in Africa to take Covid vaccines. Increasing data suggest that the way to do that is through trust. If the message comes from a local and trusted person, young people are more receptive to taking the vaccine, she explained. Such communication efforts are needed to neutralize vaccine disinformation.
While public health officials have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, plans for future disease outbreaks need to leave room for flexibility and change, Wheatley said. Some things that worked for the last pandemic may not necessarily apply for future ones.
“Next time, the only thing you can guarantee is it will be very different,” she said.
Photo: Nuthawut Somsuk, Getty Images