The challenge of the ‘day after’ the discovery of a COVID-19 antidote


Picture of André Loesekrug-Pietri
André Loesekrug-Pietri

Chairman and Scientific Director of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI) and 2013 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Picture of Thomas Hermans
Thomas Hermans

Programme Manager of the JEDI Billion Molecules against Covid-19 GrandChallenge

As the vaccine race rages on, the Billion Molecules against Covid19 global GrandChallenge organised by the Joint European Disruptive Initiative kicked off on May the 4th. At the same time, the European Union – in cooperation with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway and Saudi Arabia – launched a massive fundraising marathon. The purpose of it is twofold: to accelerate the development and deployment of tests, treatments and vaccines, and to ensure that as many players as possible undertake to make them accessible to all countries. And the EU is thinking big money, as always: no less than €7.5bn in initial funding.

If this ambition is laudable, the issue of worldwide distribution of the vaccine still needs to be addressed. Pharma players capable of massively producing doses are rare. In recent weeks, partnerships have multiplied between large laboratories to increase their production capacities: Moderna and Lonza Group aim for a billion doses per year, while AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford hope to be able to supply 100 million doses before the end of the year. The American Inovio Pharmaceuticals and the German Richter-Helm Biologics have joined forces for the same purpose, as well as the arch-rivals Sanofi (French) and GlaxoSmithKline (English).

More than just the question of when a vaccine will be discovered – and the German Minister of Health poured cold water on hopes this could happen anytime soon – the question of which laboratory will discover it, the quantity of doses that can be produced and their accessibility are eminently strategic and a major challenge for humanity. The challenge of vaccination is twofold: in addition to protecting citizens, it also offers the hope of returning economies to normal, without fear of a ’second wave’.

Tackling this challenge requires collective action to ensure massive production and equitable distribution

However, if tests conducted by American laboratories prove conclusive, it is likely that the American population will be heavily prioritised. President Donald Trump’s attempt to buy CureVac to secure access to the vaccine developed by the German biotech company for his country clearly demonstrates we should not expect much generosity from the US government. And what is already problematic for Europe is likely to prove disastrous for countries that have neither the infrastructure, the financial means, nor the manpower of Western countries. Slow and expensive, the vaccine manufacturing process automatically promotes inequality.

Tackling this challenge requires collective action to ensure massive production and equitable distribution. Besides the question of financing, on which CEPI and the World Bank are actively working, that of transforming production processes to make them more efficient is also crucial. Process intensification is a possible approach, with the aim of minimising the equipment and space used and thus reducing both its costs and its risks. And potentially to produce anywhere in the world on a distributed basis.

Several players have already taken hold of it, like the Belgian Univercells and the Dutch Batavia, but also pharmaceutical companies such as Janssen and Merk, as well as the technology and service provider Cytiva. But obstacles remain numerous, and it is a scientific and industrial frontier that we need to address with energy and determination.

Let us use this historic and planetary crisis to imagine solutions that are both scientifically robust and radically new

If the European Union wishes to live up to the challenge it has launched, funding the design and production of vaccines and treatments will not be not enough.

Let us use this historic and planetary crisis to imagine solutions that are both scientifically robust and radically new. We can develop and produce them through distributed production, 3D printing and the screening of billions of molecules like the JEDI Covid19 GrandChallenge. We need to be creative and experimental, and be willing to push the limits of science and technology. Because, it is as much the sovereignty of Europe as the equality of access to care throughout the world which is at stake.

Indeed, with the coronavirus monopolising our attention, it would be absurd not to prepare today for the epidemic of tomorrow. The number of pathogens with pandemic potential are many, and some have much higher mortality rates than the coronavirus. To get out of the current tragedy and not return to the same state of affairs when the next major disease strikes, we must take heed of Paul Valéry’s call to Europeans, “Well, what are you going to do? What are you going to do today? “

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