Paris — The new coronavirus, declared a pandemic on March 11 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) because of its global spread, and with more than 170,000 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and more than 7,000 deaths. The WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus yesterday referred to it as “the defining global health crisis of our time” .
The vast majority of the world’s population is not immune to this new virus. No cure has been found yet. Thus, all the measures that accumulate are, for the time being, preventive, and drastic and unprecedented at the least. The objective is to avoid the rapid spread of the virus through total containment measures.
The African continent is not being spared. The South African government declared a State of National Disaster and closed its borders, as well as all its schools. All gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited in South Africa, while Ghana banned “cluster gatherings” of all kinds. In Senegal, the fourth most affected African country after Egypt, South Africa and Algeria, all public events are banned for 30 days. Ethiopia’s government closed all the schools for 15 days.
Italy and Spain are the two most affected European countries. And now France announced accelerated measures. The European Union has also announced the closure of its borders.
One of WHO’s urgent aims was to prevent the virus from reaching countries with the weakest health systems. A challenge which is compromised given the number of African countries that are currently affected (27 to date).
The race to the vaccine
Though preventive measures are effectively put in place over the days, laboratories around the world are working to find treatments as well as a vaccine.
In fact, a certain number of treatments have proven efficient in the laboratory. They now need to be tested on human beings who have contracted the new coronavirus. It would take one to three months to provide the treatments once their efficacy is proven. In the United States, Vice President Mike Pence announced that treatment may be available “by summer or early fall”. As for the vaccine, the time frame is longer; between 12 and 18 months, according to scientists.
Institut Pasteur in France is working on a vaccine to be derived from the one for measles. The German bio-technology group BioNTech has announced plans to start testing patients as from end of April.
Mologic Ltd in the UK also announced that it has been awarded about £1 million as part of the British government’s £46 million international coronavirus (COVID-19) prevention and research funding package. The funding will be used by Mologic and global partners, to develop a point-of-need diagnostic test for the virus, and build on their experience with the rapid test kit for Ebola.
This will allow health officials to test for the virus at home or in the community, providing results in 10 minutes, without the need for electricity or a laboratory. And with their work on diagnostics, UK aid is also supporting Mologic in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The company is working in close partnership with the Institut Pasteur de Dakar to validate and manufacture the COVID-19 test at a new manufacturing site, DiaTropix, in Senegal.
The Canadian bio-pharmaceutical company Medicago has announced significant progress in the development of a vaccine. The company is partly owned by Philip Morris International, which aims to diversify its business activities according to the framework of its new vision based on science, technology and innovation. Philip Morris International (PMI) purchased shares in Medicago in 2013 and currently holds approximately 30% of the company’s shares. The majority of the company’s remaining shares are held by Mitsubishi Tanade Pharma.
Medicago’s research works are based on tobacco plants unlike most research which is based on egg-based vaccines. The antibody is still at the research and development phase, and Medicago said it hopes to be able to make tests on patients by summer 2020.
As for international biopharmaceutical companies, such as Sanofi and Janssen, they are collaborating with the American Advanced Biomedical Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in order to develop vaccines at the preclinical stage. The German company BioNTech, which currently works on the development of a number of vaccines for cancer and flu, also partnered with the American pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, in order to develop a vaccine.
Charitable associations also joined the race to the vaccine. The British organization, The Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mastercard launched a €110 million offer to accelerate the marketing of COVID-19 treatments which currently are in the preclinical stage.
It is true that the biotechnology industry around the world plays an essential role in the fight against COVID-19 in terms of research and development of the vaccine, as well as in the discovery of therapeutic drugs. However, all the vaccines developed so far are currently under pre-clinical testing and will not be available for several months at least.