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HEALTH| 09.12.2020

Vaccines, an endurance race 

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In an online debate organized by the Alternatives Foundation moderated by Mariano Barbacid, head of Oncology at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center and promoted by scientific journalist and vice president of the Spanish National Association of Health Informers (ANIS) Emilio de Benito, a group of renowned experts from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) analyzed the current situation, on the eve of the approval for use of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines.

Luis Enjuanes, CSIC researcher at the CNB-CSIC and director of the Coronavirus Laboratory at the National Center for Biotechnology (CNB); Vicente Larraga, CSIC researcher at the CIB-CSIC (Margarita Salas Center for Biological Research); Mariano Esteban, CSIC researcher at the CNB-CSIC and Head of the Poxvirus and Vaccines Research Group; and Margarita del Val, CSIC researcher at the CBM-CSIC-UAM (Severo Ochoa Center of Molecular Biology, CSIC multidisciplinary center and the Autonomous University of Madrid) discussed and analyzed the scenarios for the expected vaccine for COVID-19.

The Council itself, through different teams led by Enjuanes, Esteban and Larraga, is heading up three vaccine projects for COVID-19. One of them—Mariano Esteban’s, the most advanced—is already in the clinical phase and pending authorization from the Spanish and European authorities.

“It is important that vaccines teach the infected body how to recognize the infected particles,” explains Margarita del Val who, together with the other researchers, were agreed in pointing out that several vaccines will be needed, and it is time for Spanish science to contribute. Like in an endurance race, vaccines are overtaking one another and each is an improvement on the previous ones. “This is even more important in a global pandemic like this,” they explained. 

 

Speed and resources 

Answering the question of why the Spanish efforts are progressing more slowly than the likes of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer, they admitted that their centers are saturated, because they are of very high quality and it is difficult to double up their space. There is an infrastructural and also an economic difference, and while it has funding sources—the European Union, the Government, foreign institutions and corporate donations such as the 5 million euros announced by MAPFRE as early as March to help accelerate research—the CSIC will need new resources going forward.

The vaccine, they explained, will protect any person who receives it, and if the vaccine is 100 percent effective, it would be sufficient to administer it to 60 or 70 percent of the population. However, if the effectiveness fell to 50 percent it would be necessary to vaccinate as many people as possible to work toward herd immunity. Enjuanes himself is confident in using the vaccine when a licensed treatment arrives in Spain. “If it has a sterilizing effect, if it protects against symptoms, hospitalization and death, it will be analyzed when we have all the information available to the scientific community,” he said in reference to recent announcements about some of the vaccines in contention.

Different vaccines for different groups of the population 

Never in history has such a tight scientific race been seen, with such advances as the world is currently seeing in real time every day. We will see vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, as well as from Russia, China and elsewhere. For Enjuanes, the most recommended vaccine is a Western one that has been produced based on the highest level of information available to the scientific community. “There is a wide array of vaccines. We expect a high level of protection,” scientists assure us, through what is known as prime boost — where the first vaccine immunization must be followed by a subsequent one. “The variety will allow us to combine and alternate,” agreed Enjuanes and Esteban. Margarita del Val expects that the vaccination campaign in the United States will begin in mid-December. Despite cautious optimism, many experts still admit that the first vaccines will not be perfect and will not be able to eradicate the virus quickly. But this period will be crucial to the competitiveness of Spanish companies, and to ensure that the national technology available in Spain meets its needs.