Flatten the curve is a term we’ve become all too familiar with in the past few months, and some countries have done better than others in that regard.
On Jan. 1, the World Health Organization asked China for information on a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Around the same time, an Australian biotech company called Vaxine said it was tracking what it thought could be a “major pandemic threat.”
So much has happened from then till now, and the world as we know it has changed in so many ways.
When we started working on the Spark article “The Virus and the Vision” in mid-March, the virus had caused 11,252 deaths. Fast forward just a few months and we 512,000 deaths and counting. There are now more than 10.5 million cases worldwide.
Even as some businesses slowly begin to reopen, business as usual has a whole new meaning. Social distancing and mask-wearing in public are the new norm, or at least they should be. Still, we are seeing many instances of what we’ll call COVID-19 fatigue, where people are not taking necessarily precautions because they are ready to get on with their lives; others choose not to for other reasons. Still, we hate to use personification here, but the virus doesn’t care one way or the other.
Until a vaccine is available on a wide scale, we’re all in this together.
One of the researchers we highlighted in that Spark article was Nikolai Petrovsky from Flinders University in South Australia. His team had previously released the first flu vaccine created solely by artificial intelligence via a program called SAM, which is short for Search Algorithm for Ligands.
“SAM is based on a deep machine learning algorithm,” he told us at the time. “We essentially train SAM on known compounds with particular features such as anti-COVID-19 antiviral activity, and then SAM can use the information learned to look at large chemical libraries containing millions of compounds and identify compounds SAM thinks might have antiviral activity. We can then make these compounds and test them against COVID-19. So in this case SAM can be used not just to help design vaccines, as we did previously, but also to help find new antiviral drugs.”
Petrovsky said that screening those millions of compounds takes mega-computational power, which SAM gets from the cloud. It “is not something we could have easily done even a few years ago,” he told Spark. “The speed with which information can be gleaned in this way is unprecedented, and speed is what is needed when dealing with a potential pandemic virus as we have found with COVID-19.”
Fast forward to July 1, and we received an interesting press release from Petrovsky titled: “First COVID-19 Vaccine Developed in the Southern Hemisphere Commences Human Trials.” The Vaxine COVAX-19 trials will take place at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the release said, with 40 healthy participants aged 18 to 65.
“Vaxine might be a small company,” Petrovsky said in a written statement, “but over the last 18 years we have learned to be extremely resourceful in our battles against some of the world’s biggest threats including SARS, swine flu, bird flu and Ebola—designing pandemic vaccines that were effective in animal studies as well as having some enter human clinical trials. We consequently saw it as a public health imperative to use our pandemic vaccine expertise [to] rapidly develop a vaccine solution to COVID-19.”
Separately, U.S.-based Pfizer, which has been working with German drugmaker BioNTech, said that it had seen positive results from a recent clinical trial of their vaccine. The report has not yet been peer reviewed by a medical journal. Additionally, ABC News says there are about 15 companies currently performing human testing of COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said he expected the United States, alone, to have “a couple hundred million” doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the start of 2021.
This is all very promising.
Still Fauci told an interviewer at the Aspen Ideas Festival (around the 56 minute mark in the video): “I doubt seriously that any vaccine will be 100% protective. The best we’ve ever done is measles, which is 97% to 98% effective. That would be wonderful if we get there [with a COVID-19 vaccine]. I don’t think we will. I would settle for a 70% to 75% effective vaccine because that would bring you to that level that would be herd immunity level.”
Of course, people will still need to get vaccinated to get to that herd-immunity level, and we won’t get there if too many people are unwilling to do so, Fauci said.
If recent U.S. polls are indicative, somewhere around 25% of Americans say they would be unlikely to get the vaccine for various reasons to which Fauci responded: “That’s one of the reasons why we have to make sure we engage the community as we’re doing now to get community people to help us, for people to understand that we are doing everything we can to show that it’s safe and that it’s effective and it’s for the good of them as individuals and society to take the vaccine.”
Spark will continue following the COVID-19 story. You can follow our coverage here.
James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.