One of the greatest challenges, which is to deliver a promising coronavirus vaccine based on unprecedented technology to millions around the world, just got easier.
When US-based drugmaker Pfizer revealed effective preliminary results for its vaccine candidate last week the downside was that it had to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, creating major logistical challenges.
But recently, Moderna, which is another pharmaceutical company based in America, has one-upped its rival, offering a vaccine based on the same technology that appears to be similarly efficient, but can also be stored for up to a month at normal refrigerated temperatures.
The difference is significant. It is already difficult enough to provide normal vaccines to populations in the most remote areas, from India to Africa, due to supply and transport issues. A more challenging hurdle is posed by the temperature factor, requiring countries to develop storage and transport networks that can sustain temperatures much colder than those needed for frozen meat. The vast investment and coordination required increased the possibility that the vaccine access would be guaranteed to only rich nations.
“The Moderna vaccine is a much more viable option for low-and middle-income countries than the Pfizer vaccine,” said Rachel Silverman, a US-based policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Cold-storage needs are less extreme.”
Not only can Moderna’s vaccine stay stable for 30 days in the fridge, it can also be preserved for long-term use in ordinary freezers. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at a negative 70 degrees and can only be refrigerated for up to five days.
“The Moderna vaccine can be accommodated within the existing vaccine distribution networks,” said Ayfer Ali, an assistant professor and specialist in drug research at Warwick Business School in the UK. “Even in remote and underdeveloped areas, fridges are available or can be supplied cheaply.”
While Moderna has only cut deals for its vaccine with a handful of developed countries, it had received support from the non-profit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and may therefore be bound to help provide access in low-middle-income countries.
The company’s vaccine uses the same latest and experimental mechanism of messenger RNA as Pfizer’s. The emergence of two successful candidates is helping to mitigate fears that a single vaccine would not be nearly sufficient to fulfill global demand.
“We will need to use all of the capacity that we have and all of the vaccines that are effective as they come online,” Mr. Ali said.
In order to avoid the refrigeration issue, Pfizer could also make its vaccine more viable by reformulating it, likely in a freeze-dried form, said Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, chair of policy and communications at the UK Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine.
Meanwhile, hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines are in the pipeline, and another, more cost-effective candidate that uses proven technology and is easier to develop and ship is likely to show up, experts said.
“I think it will become clear in the next couple of months, there are other vaccines that are in the pipeline that are in Phase III,” said Mr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “There will be decisions about costs of waiting versus acting. Some might decide to wait based on broader characteristics and the need for an ultra-cold chain, I think that will be a big calculation.”
As not many current drugmakers have production facilities for messenger RNA technology, other vaccine options may be necessary.
Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer of the Serum Institute of India Ltd., the world’s largest producer of vaccines by volume, said he had no plans to “dabble with any messenger RNA candidates” for at least 2.5 years until the completion of a new facility being built by the company.