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‘The world has never had to vaccinate the entire population’

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, and Christophe Weber, president and chief executive of Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Screenshot by Northeastern University

With hopes for a return to normal life resting on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, the race is on to produce one sooner than later. But we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for a vaccine, said Christophe Weber, president and chief executive of Takeda Pharmaceuticals. 

In an interview with Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, Weber said that the likelihood of developing a vaccine by January is high, because the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has a low mutation rate. This means that the virus isn’t mutating significantly as it spreads from person to person. But, Weber said, complex manufacturing processes could hinder efforts to immunize every person on the planet in a short time. 

Any vaccine will be available in limited quantities at first, Weber said, and mass producing and distributing it throughout the world will take “many years.”

“The world never had in the past to vaccinate the entire population of the world,” Weber said. “It’s never happened, so the capacity is just not there.”

Weber also shared his insights about what the coronavirus pandemic teaches us about how to respond to future outbreaks. In the event of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases as communities reopen their economies, he said, local officials must be able to rapidly identify clusters and contain them through testing and contact tracing to limit the spread of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

“That should be the goal,” he said, “because the world cannot continue to shut down the economy like that forever—but you need to have this capability of testing and contact tracing, and that’s not available everywhere unfortunately.”

Weber expressed uncertainty about the efficacy of antibody testing, a blood test that determines whether someone has ever been infected with the coronavirus. The test looks for signs of an immune response to the coronavirus, which occurs in the form of antibodies whenever the body encounters a virus. Because it takes time for antibodies to develop, the tests are not helpful for diagnosing an early infection, but they are effective at detecting how widely the virus has spread in a population. 

Governments are hopeful that the tests can help them decide when to end physical distancing measures and allow businesses and schools to reopen. Weber said that additional clinical trials and time are required to determine the accuracy of the tests.

Weber said that this is a “big moment” for the pharmaceutical industry and that the big firms have responded to it by putting aside self-interests and collaborating to contain the outbreak. He cited Takeda’s efforts to develop hyperimmune globulins, which are plasma derived-therapies that may be a treatment option for COVID-19.

“In our case, we created an alliance to produce these hyperimmune globulins products,” he said. “Never ever before have these alliances happened, so I think it’s very unique.” 

Weber said that Takeda lacks the technology to develop its own vaccines, so it is working with other drug firms to help with manufacturing. The pandemic has temporarily slowed the company’s research and development efforts, Weber said, but this has given the company time to consider doing things differently in the future. He said he’s hopeful that researchers in the alliance are working together to share ideas, resources, and data with the goal of developing treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19.

“Every single technology existing on vaccines is today targeting the coronavirus,” he said. “There are more than 100 vaccines in development. The question is which one will win, and then it’s about the manufacturing capacity.”

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