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Thursday, March 4th, 2021

WHO hosts virtual forum to set research priorities for COVID-19 vaccines

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The World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a virtual forum last week to identify knowledge gaps and set research priorities for vaccines against COVID-19.

At the forum – attended by more than 2,800 scientists from 130 countries – the participants discussed the safety and efficacy of existing vaccines and new candidates, ways to optimize limited supply, and the need for additional safety studies.

“The development and approval of several safe and effective vaccines less than a year after this virus was isolated and sequenced is an astounding scientific accomplishment,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in his opening remarks. “The approval of the first few vaccines does not mean the job is done. Far from it. More vaccines are in the pipeline, which must be evaluated to ensure we have enough doses to vaccinate everyone.”

To date, more than 30 million vaccine doses have already been administered in 47 mostly high-income countries. However, the vaccine rollout has exposed inequalities in distribution and access.

“The spirit of collaboration has to prevail in these challenging times as we seek to understand this virus,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said. “We have to be mindful of the inequalities, and we must deliberately promote investment in regional capacities to level the playing field and have meaningful collaboration to begin to address some of the challenges.”

The participants agreed on the need for more research on administering vaccines in different target populations, as well as on vaccination delivery strategies and schedules. Further, they discussed the impact of emerging variants on the efficacy of vaccines, the impact of vaccines on the transmission of infection, and the need to develop the next generation of vaccine platforms.

“The world needs multiple vaccines that work in different populations in order to meet global demand and end the COVID-19 outbreak. Ideally, those will be single-dose vaccines that do not require cold chain, could be delivered without a needle and syringe, and are amenable to large-scale manufacture,” Mike Levine, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland, said.

The meeting concluded with an agreement to establish a platform for global sharing and coordination of emerging vaccine research on efficacy and safety. The forum, hosted by WHO, would enable scientists to share and discuss unpublished and published data and further the understanding of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The WHO will regularly convene experts from around the world, promote collaborative research, provide standard protocols and develop a platform for sharing the latest knowledge in the field,” Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist, said.