Geneva (AFP)

A Covid-19 vaccine this year? Pharmaceutical industry bosses are optimistic, but warn that the challenges will be "colossal" to produce and distribute the billions of doses needed.

A hundred laboratories around the world are engaged in a time trial to develop one or more vaccines against the new coronavirus, of which 10 have reached the phase of clinical trials.

"The hope of many people is that we will have a vaccine, perhaps several, by the end of the year," said Pascal Soriot, general manager of AstraZeneca, at a virtual press conference Thursday.

The British company is associated with the University of Oxford for the manufacture and worldwide distribution of the vaccine under development.

Albert Bourla, boss of Pfizer who is conducting clinical trials in partnership with the German company Biontech, also believes in a vaccine before 2021.

"If things go well and the stars are aligned, we will have enough evidence of safety and efficacy to be able to have [...] a vaccine by the end of October," he said.

It usually takes several years to bring a vaccine to market, but in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, experimental vaccines deemed sufficiently safe and effective could be launched in record time.

The International Federation of the Medicines Industry (IFPMA) warns, however, that the production and distribution of the vaccine face "colossal" challenges.

- Race against time -

One of them, which may seem paradoxical, is that transmission rates are declining rapidly in Europe where numerous clinical trials are being carried out.

They will soon be too weak to continue these effects in the wild, warns Pascal Soriot of AstraZeneca, stressing that studies in which volunteers are intentionally exposed to the virus to measure the effectiveness of a vaccine are not acceptable, on an ethical plan, in the case of the Covid-19.

"We don't have much time," he says.

The new coronavirus has killed more than 355,000 people and infected at least 5.7 million people worldwide since its appearance in late December.

The world is going to need two doses of vaccine per person, or 15 billion according to some estimates, a real logistical headache, recalls the director of IFPMA, Thomas Cueni.

The pharmaceutical industry is committed to ensuring a fair distribution of the validated vaccine or vaccines, but "we will not have the required quantities the first day, even by double work," he warns.

As soon as a vaccine is available, it should be packaged in glass vials.

However "there are not enough bottles in the world", notes Pascal Soriot. AstraZeneca and other groups are considering the possibility of storing several doses per vial.

- Protect intellectual property -

Paul Stoffels, number two and scientific director of Johnson and Johnson, adds that if 15 billion doses were needed, multiple vaccines would have to be licensed to meet initial demand.

"Not all candidate vaccines may be suitable for the whole world depending on their characteristics," he said.

Especially because some vaccines require to be stored at very low temperatures, which is not possible everywhere.

Furthermore, recognizing the imperative of universal distribution of the vaccine, the bosses of the pharmaceutical industry are unanimous in defending intellectual property on their innovations.

This "is absolutely fundamental in our sector" insists the boss of GSK, Emma Walmsley.

Labs are investing billions of dollars with little hope of recouping their costs, according to Pascal Soriot.

"If you don't protect intellectual property, nobody has an interest in innovating," he says.

© 2020 AFP