How vaccines became the unexpected superheroes of 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the world’s attitude to vaccines, revolutionized their development, and elevated them to the role of potential savior. The UAE’s and world’s first phase III trials of an inactive COVID-19 vaccine ensure it is helping to lead this change.

For the past decade, people have generally taken vaccines for granted; many thought of them as just a couple of jabs for polio, diphtheria and other shots that kids received at school, which were then forgotten. But for the past six months, the world has become transfixed with the concept of vaccines like no other time in history. Daily news bulletins present us with the latest updates on the global race to develop a vaccine to combat COVID-19 pandemic and help bring all our lives back to normal.

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Despite the recent attention on vaccines, they are not new – in fact, vaccines have been in our lives since the 17th century, when the first vaccine was discovered for smallpox. Immunization is also an age-old tradition dating back to Buddhist monks and other civilizations that employed ranging methods, including extreme ones involving snake venom to build immunity.

Yet, many people would have never believed that the world would place its hope of resuming a normal life on the successful discovery of an effective vaccine. You could argue that vaccines are rapidly becoming the unassuming superheroes of 2020 – replacing the Hollywood summer blockbusters with their potential to come to the rescue of all of mankind and to do their bit for humanity.

An engineer looks at monkey kidney cells as he make a test on an experimental vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus inside the Cells Culture Room laboratory at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing. (AFP)

An engineer looks at monkey kidney cells as he make a test on an experimental vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus inside the Cells Culture Room laboratory at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing. (AFP)

Vaccine development and testing processes have been rapidly accelerated. Research milestones that would have taken a decade or more have now been compressed into months through expediting regulatory functions, optimizing data systems, providing transparency, and demonstrating faith in the powerful spirit of humanity. Governments have invested considerable amounts on clinical trials, manufacturing, and vaccine supply.

The pandemic has revolutionized the vaccine production processes in ways never seen before. Uniquely, vaccine approval protocols are now running in parallel to the trials, manufacturing, and supply, to hasten the delivery of a safe and effective vaccine to people around the world. These faster processes and protocols may lead to questions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines under development. But a closer look at the science behind these trials eases any doubts.

These trials follow the international guidelines of research and ethics, while using the latest and most sophisticated technology to support the efforts of governments, companies, medical experts, scientists, researchers, and individuals in a global coalition of clinical expertise and technology to find a solution to our biggest modern health crisis.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Hamed, Chairman of the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, DoH volunteers for the 4Humanity trials. (Dubai Media Office)

Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Hamed, Chairman of the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, DoH volunteers for the 4Humanity trials. (Dubai Media Office)

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The UAE’s role

Here in the UAE, the 4Humanity trials – the world’s first Phase III trial of an inactivated vaccine for COVID-19 – have had 31,000 volunteers successfully vaccinated.

The Phase III clinical trials are testing the safety and efficacy of two inactivated vaccine candidates, both of which were developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products Co Ltd and Beijing Institute of Biology Products – subsidiaries of Sinopharm CNBG. The tests in Phase I and II trials in China were successful and triggered a strong neutralizing antibody response. These are now part of the ongoing double-blind trials in the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan, which have seen a total of 41,000 volunteers from over 125 nationalities participate in the trials – with the aim to measure efficacy on a larger population size in line with major trials of this nature around the world.

Launching from the UAE, these are now the first Pan-Arab trials of their kind and have showcased the value of collaboration across entities and countries to work closely as partners for safeguarding the future health of nations. The trials have set a benchmark for being the most technologically advanced, with results of the trials fast-tracked using sophisticated AI technology and machine learning, helping researchers to conduct tests at a previously unimaginable scale.

Globally, inactivated vaccines are just one of the types of vaccines being tested. The over 200 trials worldwide are also testing vaccines including live-attenuated vaccines, subunit vaccines, and toxoid vaccines. An inactivated vaccine – the type that is being tested in these clinical trials – uses a killed version of the germ or antigen that causes the disease to help the immune system prepare itself for an eventual infection and has been successfully used for the Influenza, Hepatitis and Diphtheria vaccines.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan receives a COVID-19 vaccine dose. (Twitter)

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan receives a COVID-19 vaccine dose. (Twitter)

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Dr Walid Zaher is the Chief Research Officer and Vaccine Study Director at G42 Healthcare.

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Last Update: Thursday, 29 October 2020 KSA 11:05 - GMT 08:05
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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