Experts foresee triumph and tragedy in COVID-19 vaccine quest

Panel on COVID-19 vaccine
GeekWire founders John Cook and Todd Bishop chat with a trio of experts involved in the quest to develop coronavirus vaccines on the first day of the 2020 GeekWire Summit. The annual event is being conducted virtually due to COVID-19 concerns. (GeekWire Photo)

The good news is that Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19, is moving ahead at a pace that justifies its name.

The bad news is that despite all that effort, the coronavirus outbreak is still likely to be with us next year — and low- to medium-income countries such as India are likely to be hit particularly hard.

“We’re going to probably see a lot of deaths,” said Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines and human immunobiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s going to be a great inequity and tragedy that will unfold.”

Stuart and other experts involved in the vaccine quest laid out their assessment of the road ahead today during the first session of the 2020 GeekWire Summit.

The fact that the annual summit’s first session focused on the pandemic was apt, and not just because beating COVID-19 is the top issue facing the world today.

Safety concerns forced the GeekWire Summit to go totally virtual for the first time in its eight-year history — and you just knew there had to be a few technical glitches to overcome. (Any attendees who weren’t able to stream the panel live can access it on-demand in the event platform.)

Any technical challenges that cropped up during today’s panel would pale in comparison with the challenges being faced by Stuart and her two fellow panelists: Melanie Ivarsson, chief development officer for Moderna; and Deborah Fuller, a vaccinologist at the University of Washington.

COVID-19 vaccine panelists on Zoom
Participants in the GeekWire Summit panel on the search for COVID-19 vaccines include Moderna’s Melanie Ivarsson (top left), the University of Washington’s Deborah Fuller (top right) and the Gates Foundation’s Lynda Stuart. (GeekWire Photo)

“I’ve never worked this fast in my life, or this hard, and it’s as if everything’s moving super-fast,” Fuller said. “And yet, at the same time, it feels like it’s just one long, nine-month day.”

Fuller has been studying how the coronavirus behind COVID-19 spreads, and how next-generation vaccines can stop it. Ivarsson’s company, meanwhile, has been racing to test and distribute one of those next-gen, RNA-based vaccines. Moderna’s vaccine candidate went through its first clinical trial in Seattle, and the company is just about to finish enrolling 30,000 volunteers for the crucial Phase 3 trial.

“We are trying to save the world, and it’s a very exciting way to spend your day,” Ivarsson said.

The course of the COVID-19 vaccine race hasn’t always run smooth: One company, AstraZeneca, had to pause its Phase 3 trial last month when one of the participants suffered an unexplained illness. Johnson & Johnson paused its trial this week for similar reasons.

Ivarsson said Moderna’s vaccine development program has continued on track, but she stressed that safety is

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