Coronavirus: COVID-19 'going to be part of normality' from now on - expert

The head of a Kiwi company developing a unique COVID-19 vaccine says it's likely the virus will never be eradicated, despite unprecedented global efforts.

Robert Feldman, chief executive of the COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation, told The AM Show on Tuesday that's why unlike some other vaccine manufacturers, they're in no hurry to get theirs ready.

"It's not a short-term virus, I really don't think so. I think we're going to be living with it from now on. It's going to be part of normality, like the flu."

COVID-19 is of course much deadlier than the flu - between five and 10 times more lethal, according to the best estimates - and can leave people struggling with side-effects for months afterwards (perhaps years - as a brand new disease, no one really knows). 

This has prompted dozens of private companies and universities around the world to pour resources into finding a vaccine. The United States' top expert, Anthony Fauci, this week said the first approved for general use could be in doctors' hands by December

"I am feeling positive," said Dr Feldman. "I think the first vaccines will be exactly as he says - available relatively soon, in small numbers... But it's going to take some time for that to ramp up and trickle down to general populations, including our own population. 

"So I'm not that hopeful that we're going to see mass vaccination in this country for a year maybe, or even longer. That's my crystal ball, which may or may not be working correctly." 

The first vaccines also might not be as effective as those which come later. Dr Feldman's team is using a New Zealand-developed technology using 'bio-beads' coated in a protein created using genetic data from the SARS-CoV-2 virus supplied by Chinese scientists earlier this year - not needing any virus particles at all. 

"One of the potential issues with all these first vaccines is that it might not put us in as good a position as some people might think," Dr Feldman explained. 

"Let's say 75 percent of the population get vaccinated, let's say the first vaccines are 75 percent effective. That in practise means nearly half the population are going to be non-immune - that's not enough to stop the spread of [the virus]. Even if we have a well-vaccinated population, we may not be in such a good position. 

"So what I'm working towards is a good, all-round, highly-dependable vaccine that we can give when we're ready - in a couple of years - that might be a little better than the first vaccines." 

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

The risk of some viruses, like measles, can be largely eliminated through a single vaccine, perhaps with a booster later on. If enough people are immune, outbreaks can be prevented through herd immunity - the virus unable to find enough new hosts to infect, dying out. 

Other viruses - like influenza - mutate so quickly, herd immunity is impossible and new vaccines have  to be developed every year. Dr Feldman says while the flu vaccine only offers about 50 percent coverage, it still makes a difference.

He's confident a vaccine with at least 80 or 90 percent effectiveness can be developed for COVID-19 because it's not mutating very quickly. New research out this week from the US found the virus, SARS-CoV-2, underwent rapid evolution early in the pandemic, but has slowed since April, "coalescing around single versions of key proteins". But even those early mutations haven't significantly changed its shape - which is key for how the body's immune system recognises an intruder. 

"What is evident is it's not like the flu," said Dr Feldman. "The flu keeps changing its spots - it's a different animal year after year, whereas this coronavirus has not mutated at all significantly. All the vaccines that are being developed will still work against all the different types of strains across the world." 

This raises hopes herd immunity will, in time, be possible. It's unclear if contracting and recovering from COVID-19 offers any kind of lasting immunity, as it does for some viruses, with reports of people catching the disease a second time. 

When Dr Feldman last appeared on The AM Show in early September, the technology was still only theory. Now they've actually managed to create the "guts of the vaccine" in test tubes - but human trials are still over a year away.

"If we have a highly-effective vaccine that is 80 or 90 percent effective and we have a good coverage of the population being vaccinated, then we will see things in exactly the same way that we've seen with measles, for example - where as long as people are vaccinated, it pretty well disappears." 

COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation next month will launch a PledgeMe campaign to raise funds for its next round of trials.

And unlike some other experts, Dr Feldman doesn't think having to live with the virus means opening up the borders and letting it rip through. 

"COVID-19 can be a pretty serious disease - you're going to have a lot of people in hospital, not everyone is going to respond 100 percent to treatment, it's going to gum up the whole health system, it's going to be pretty ugly - even if there is a good treatment... 

"If we can prevent death, we should prevent death. I think with a mixture of in the short-term, the restrictions that we have in place now, and in the longer-term a good vaccination policy we can keep deaths down."