The head of Japanese drugmaker Shionogi has called for a longer-term international strategy to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines, warning that political hopes for a quick solution may be disappointed.
“Politicians may not want to hear this but everything will not go according to script and back-up plans will be needed,” Isao Teshirogi, who is heading efforts at Shionogi to develop a Covid-19 vaccine as well as an antiviral drug for infected patients, said in an interview.
“There needs to be a commitment from companies, academics and governments that these efforts will continue over the longer term.”
More than 100 coronavirus vaccines are in development worldwide to combat a virus that has already killed more than 420,000 people.
Governments are eager to offer hope to citizens and reactivate their economies but there has been a lack of global co-operation on how vaccines will be manufactured and offered to emerging economies if and when they become available.
“In addition to the question of which vaccine is safe and effective, we need to consider how much capacity would be secured where and at what price they can be offered,” Dr Teshirogi said.
It also remained taboo to discuss whether all the investments by drugmakers and governments would bear fruit. “If the virus is gone in two years, that’s great for mankind but it could also be hell for us if no one uses what we developed after all the investments we have made,” he said.
The Shionogi boss also cast doubt on aggressive timetables and production targets set by rivals. The earliest Shionogi would be able distribute its potential vaccine to health professionals would be January even though the company has set aside all other major projects to focus on coronavirus.
The Osaka-based drugmaker, which specialises in infectious diseases and anti-flu medication, is developing a traditional protein-based vaccine and will aim to supply about 10m doses, initially in Japan.
While the 10m figure was small, Dr Teshirogi said the target was deliberately set low and its actual capacity could be up to 60m if its vaccine could be administered with a single dose and not require a follow-up jab.
“In normal circumstances, it takes about three to five years to build up data to analyse the strength of antibodies produced by a vaccine and its medium to longer term impact on the body,” Dr Teshirogi said. “Frankly speaking, I think each drugmaker wants to take this step by step but that’s not allowed in the current environment.”
Shionogi’s approach contrasts with other companies that are pursuing vaccines based on less-proven science that could yield quicker results but carry a higher risk of failure.
Last month, Moderna, a Boston-based biotech company, unveiled early positive results for its potential vaccine, which is using a “messenger RNA” (mRNA) platform that has never yielded a product approved by regulators.
AstraZeneca has also said it has secured orders for at least 400m doses of its potential vaccine being developed with Oxford university and would begin delivering them in September.
While new technologies were unproven, Dr Teshirogi acknowledged the need to have as many candidates as possible for vaccines and treatment since so much was still unknown about which one would be viable and there would be no single solution that worked for all patients.
“Every pharmaceutical company is working day and night to make every second count for the patients,” he said. “But even after all the efforts, there is still the worst-case scenario that all the vaccines [under development] may not work.”