Kiwi COVID-19 researcher wouldn't take Russian vaccine

The Russians' claim they've got a working COVID-19 vaccine has been laughed off by a Kiwi doctor trying to make one using homegrown Kiwi technology.  

The mere mention of the Russian vaccine on The AM Show on Wednesday had Robert Feldman chuckling. Dr Feldman is the head of the New Zealand-based COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation, which has $1.5 million in private and taxpayer funding to develop a vaccine here. 

"I would not take it because it hasn't been tested," he told host Ryan Bridge. 

Russia says its vaccine  'Sputnik V' is safe, but hasn't released any proof at all to the international scientific community to prove it. That hasn't stopped a group of high-profile Kiwis, including former National Party MPs Don Brash and Ross Meurant, setting up a company to import it. 

Dr Feldman said he'd take any vaccine that's been proven to work, and has been approved "without political pressure" - but that could be years away. 

There are promising candidates being developed by scientists at the University of Oxford and dozens of other labs around the world, but Dr Feldman says the first wave of vaccines approved for public use might not be that good. Usually it takes about a decade to get vaccines up to scratch - and for some diseases, they never come. 

"Maybe the very first ones are going to be available at the very end of this year or early next year," said Dr Feldman.

"But there's going to be a limited supply of those, and those first ones may not be optimal vaccines - they may be partially effective or they may actually have relatively high side-effects. Some are just relatively difficult to distribute. There may be issues with the first ones off the block. That's why we exist - we think we can produce a better vaccine than the first ones off the block."

Robert Feldman.
Robert Feldman. Photo credit: The AM Show

His team hopes to have theirs into trials by early 2022. Rather than focusing on the coronavirus' spike protein like most of the others, the COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation is using "a unique combination" of different parts of the virus to "produce a very strong and broad immune response".

The vaccine comes in the form of a 'biobead' - biodegradable nanoparticles - created from bacteria. The beads are coated in a protein created using genetic data from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which Chinese scientists supplied earlier this year, without needing any of the actual virus particles at all.

"It's a vaccine that is using technology originally developed in Palmerston North. Some newer brains, including me, have repurposed it and we're using some new designs, taking special bits of the coronavirus and adding it to that technology that was developed in Palmerston North.  

"We've also put together... probably the greatest concentration of people in New Zealand who have actually developed vaccines before. Then we've got backing of some great people from all over New Zealand." 

The Kiwi vaccine is "all theoretical" at this stage, and its creators know they'll likely be beaten in the race to be first. 

"You have to make absolutely sure that it's highly effective and then you have to make sure it's extremely safe," said Dr Feldman.

"You can only do that by jumping a whole series of hoops - trying it first of all in the laboratories, then trying it in a small number of people, then trying it in a large number of people, then trying it in a very large number of people. If you don't do that - and the Russians haven't - then you don't know whether your vaccine is both effective and safe. So there has to be a long road. 

"There are a few shortcuts - all the red tape can be dealt with quickly - but if you're going to do this right, and we have to do this right despite the pressures, it just takes a long time." 

Even if their attempt fails, Dr Feldman says the work they're doing will help "build an infrastructure in New Zealand that can certainly be utilised for other projects in the future".

"I think for COVID-19, the more eggs we have in the basket, the better. I don't think it's an easy vaccine to develop. I don't think there's any upper limit - the more vaccines that are in development, the better."

COVID-19 has infected a confirmed 25.8 million and killed 859,000 people to date. Both figures are believed to be underestimates - excess mortality figures suggesting tens of thousands of deaths in the US have gone unrecorded in the official pandemic statistics, for example.