Race for a vaccine: Kiwi scientists plead for more funding

As Kiwis return to work by the thousands and new case numbers inch closer to zero ever so slowly, hope is growing that COVID-19 is almost contained.

Alert level 3 has brought small new freedoms, but before life can resume as normal scientists say one thing is essential - New Zealand will need a COVID-19 vaccine.

Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, says a vaccine is essential for our economic future.

"It's the only way New Zealanders can leave the country... It's the only way we can have people coming as tourists. We need a vaccine for our nation to survive."

Inside laboratories across the country New Zealand scientists are already preparing to design, test and make a vaccine.

It may seem a longshot for a small island nation. But a homegrown vaccine could be vital even if one is developed elsewhere, we may not be able to buy or produce it without being involved ourselves.

Since the whole world wants its hands on a cure, Le Gros warns New Zealand could be at the back of a very long queue. 

"A lot of nations, they'll think of their own interests first. They've got people dying of this virus. They'll want to vaccinate and protect themselves first."

Overseas, work is well underway on more than 100 possible vaccines. And some are already at human trials. The University of Oxford began tests in late April and already hopes are high for success.

But even if scientists find a breakthrough, demand for a vaccine could outstrip supply.

The world will need billions of doses, and whether it's a Kiwi or foreign recipe New Zealand may have to make its own. In the Malaghan Institute, work is well underway. Preclinical trials could begin within months.

They're used to dealing with infectious diseases, with many samples of virus stored in freezers chilled to negative 70C.

And soon they'll hold the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen causing COVID-19. Le Gros says once they have the virus safely stored they will start 'unleashing hell' on it with vaccines. 

The virus itself is grown in Dunedin in the University of Otago's high-security lab. It's dangerous work with strict protections. And this is where trials of potential vaccines are ready to begin.

University of Otago head of research Richard Blaikie told Newshub Nation these trials will help accelerate the global search for a vaccine. 

"It will also place us well for understanding how any vaccine that is developed - wherever it's developed - works, and what we might need to locally produce that vaccine."

But Le Gros says much more is needed for efforts like this to succeed, such as investment from the Government in a national strategy to secure a COVID-19 vaccine.

"This is a national crisis - it needs a national response, a governmental response. We need Ministry of Health involvement advice and guidance. We're the scientists, we'll play our role, but we need an overall structure to work within so it's ultimately made to be successful."

A group of the country's top researchers and scientists have put a $10 million proposal to the Government for a national effort towards a vaccine. Many tell Newshub Nation they're hopeful a positive answer could come next week.

It would start with plans to test the best vaccines produced either here or overseas. And lay the crucial groundwork that will enable us to manufacture our own.

Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods says the strategy is still in development. An announcement is expected "in the coming weeks" and before that some projects may be funded short-term. But just what shape that will take is in question. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says New Zealand can't go it alone.

"We're not anticipating New Zealand's best endeavours are to put funding and effort into trying to develop a vaccine - but rather to work alongside other vaccine developers."

Le Gros believes we can do it but he says action is needed fast.

"We've got some of the best vaccine researchers in the world here in New Zealand, we just need to empower them, get them on with it. Right now - yesterday - I'm a yesterday guy."

Even the most optimistic projections say a vaccine could take 18 months, but Le Gros has doubts a vaccine could roll out that quickly.

"To roll out a population-wide vaccine in New Zealand and the  Pacific, it's gonna take much longer than 18 months. Put that framework on your economy and our ability to move and do things, we're in trouble. So we need to make this thing happen as quickly as possible."

Every day wasted could prolong the pandemic. To develop and one day produce a vaccine, Kiwi researchers are raring to go.