Coronavirus: World Health Organisation reveals three leading candidates in race for COVID-19 vaccine

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed its three leading candidates in the race to find a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, with more than 70 vaccines in development worldwide.

The top candidates are the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology in partnership with Hong Kong's CanSino Biological Inc and US biotechnology companies Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna, the latter in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). All three are in the process of recruiting participants for and undertaking human trials. 

A table published by WHO on Sunday (NZ time) shows the current stage of clinical evaluation for each candidate and the 70 developers worldwide. 

According to the US National Library of Medicine, a safety trial for the Moderna and NIAID vaccine, mRNA-1273, is estimated to be completed by June 2021. Forty-five healthy participants aged between 18 and 55 will receive a series of injections of the vaccine in the deltoid muscle and will be followed through 12 months after the second vaccination. 

The first participant was enrolled in the study on March 3 and people are being recruited from Decatur, Georgia, Seattle, Washington and a third location in Maryland.

The clinical trial for the Inovio Pharmaceuticals vaccine candidate is estimated to be completed by November 2020, according to the information available.  

The study of its DNA plasmid vaccine involves 40 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 50 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Kansas City, Missouri. The first participant was enrolled on April 3.

While both US candidates are in the recruitment process according to the US National Library of Medicine, some reports are claiming both trials already began last week.

Meanwhile, the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology has already moved on to phase II - a "randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled phase II clinical trial" expected to run from April until January 2021, according to the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry

The trial consists of three groups, the first with a sample size of 250 and the second and third with sample sizes of 125. The first two groups will be administered a middle dose and a low dose respectively, while the third group will receive a placebo - a substance that has no physiological effect.

Four days after the release of the information, the global COVID-19 death toll has risen to an estimated 134,354. There have been more than 2 million cases confirmed worldwide. The US, Spain, Italy, Germany and France have the highest rates of COVID-19 respectively, although Italy has the highest death toll at roughly 21,645, according to Johns Hopkins University's live COVID-19 tracker.

"Under WHO's coordination, a group of experts with diverse backgrounds is working towards the development of vaccines against COVID-19," WHO said in a statement on Monday. 

"The group makes a call to everyone to follow recommendations to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and protect the health of individuals."

The remaining 67 vaccine candidates are still in the preclinical stages of development at institutes such as Osaka University in Japan, Australia's University of Queensland and the University of Oxford and Imperial College London.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the pharmaceutical industry is hoping to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get a vaccine on the market from roughly 10 to 15 years to within the next 12 months.

Despite the leading candidates moving on to human trials, a number of public health officials and media outlets are reiterating that a 12 to 18-month timeframe is to be expected before any mass vaccination campaign. The Guardian claims an experimental yet safe and effective vaccine could be available within weeks or months, but would likely only be available to limited high-risk groups, such as medical workers.

On Wednesday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed that New Zealand may work with Australia to help research, develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Health during Wednesday's daily briefing, Dr Bloomfield was asked whether he was concerned New Zealand may be down the pecking order for a cure to the virus. He said he "will make sure" that doesn't happen.

"I'm not concerned about it because we will make sure that we're not, and I think there are a couple of ways we can do that. But predominantly that will be making sure we work closely with Australia, which is undertaking research," he said.

Dr Bloomfield says the Health Research Council has put out the call for COVID-19 research funding proposals and it will make an announcement later this week on who it will support.

"There may be some vaccine research that we can also do here, and I think we will look to working really closely with Australia around research, development and then production of a vaccine."