How much for all this?
What about some information that isn’t being shared as readily — cost? With everything on the line, COVID-19 immunity feels a bit like a priceless commodity.
Pricing a vaccine is not as complicated as creating one, but it isn’t far off. To beat the coronavirus, the vaccine needs to be cheap and available in large quantities so that everybody gets a dose. But it also needs to turn enough of a profit to cover the cost of development and manufacturing. On an Aug. 5 investors call, NPR reports, Moderna’s CEO said the company had already made deals with some countries at $32 and $37 a dose for small orders, with lower prices for larger quantities.
How is Inovio doing at balancing on this slim tightrope? Broderick said she thinks it’s doing well, adding that “at a large scale, we feel that our cost of goods will be really very achievable.”
The process of manufacturing DNA is actually not that dissimilar to brewing beer, she said, but instead of yeast eating sugar and leaving alcohol, you have E. coli bacteria acting as a mini-factory to make the vaccine. Injecting bits of DNA made by a bacteria into human cells may sound a bit odd, but it isn’t actually a new concept. Making DNA and adding it to cells has long been an important skill for basic scientific research — this is just repurposing existing technology.
With the exception of a special-use waiver in China, no vaccine is currently available to the public. But if you’re interested in sticking out your arm for science, Broderick said you can join the clinical trials. Inovio’s website has a link that will take you to the government’s page, where you can join the waiting list. The vaccine can’t move forward without more testing, and more test subjects.
A clinical trial is a controlled scientific study, so signing up doesn’t guarantee you acceptance. And because half of the participants will get a mock vaccine, even joining the trial does not mean you’ll be truly immunized.
COVID-19 has not affected everyone equally. The elderly are especially at risk, and Black and Latino people, many working in essential jobs during the pandemic, have been getting sick and dying at higher rates.
“If testing [of] the vaccine doesn’t truly reflect the demographics, the population that it’s being designed for, it’s almost a false picture,” said Broderick. Inovio is trying to address this in its trial construction, she said.
“That’s been something that we’ve been very, very conscious of moving forward for our next round of clinical testing, is that those groups are actively encouraged to join the clinical trial.”
Daniel Kulp, a researcher at Wistar who is continuing work on the COVID-19 vaccine, said he thinks many different vaccines are going to be available.
“I think that’s also a benefit too,” Kulp said, “because they’re all going to be slightly different in what kind of immunity they drive and what kind of safety profile they have.”
With so many vaccines racing to go to market, the best-case scenario sees people all around the world having access to several safe options as soon as possible. Not just for Inovio but also for her personally, this is huge, Broderick said.
“As a mum, as a citizen, you can’t help but be moved by the situation that we’re in, that the whole world is in, at the moment,” she said.
Patel, too, sees the importance of the work. “Having a vaccine, ours in addition to other candidates, I think will really help people feel more comfortable and get them back to the normal daily life and being the social human beings that we are.”