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Kiwi scientists have joined forces in an unprecedented effort to ensure this country gets fast access to a potential vaccine to combat Covid-19.

If the hunt for a cure is successful, a vaccine could even be manufactured in New Zealand, saving Kiwis from waiting longer due to worldwide demand.

It is likely the vaccine wouldn't be made from scratch by our own scientists, but instead created from an effective candidate developed overseas.


The New York-based head of the Kiwi company spearheading New Zealand's effort says people should still expect a wait, given a best-case scenario could still mean an agent was 18 months away.

Development of a Covid-19 vaccine is crucial to the return of international travel.

Around the world, there are now around 90 such candidates in the works – including eight being used in human clinical trials, and six approved to start such trials.

This week, the World Health Organisation announced there were now around seven or eight "top" candidates being fast-tracked, with $13b of funding pledged by more than 40 countries.

It came as the Government has awarded Kiwi biotech company Avalia Immunotherapies a $100,000 grant for scientists to kick-start work on developing, testing and manufacturing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for New Zealand.

The recently formed company, along with collaborators at Victoria and Otago universities and Wellington-based Malaghan Institute, began discussing a national effort as far back as February.

A big focus of the freshly-funded work would be keeping a close eye on vaccines being developed - and mapping out how we could manufacture them here.

Speaking with the Herald from New York, its chief executive Dr Shivali Gulab said the company would be looking to work with overseas groups that were already carrying out clinical trials or were close to doing so.


"It's leveraging what is being done internationally. Can we work with those groups, with those companies, and actually gear up to manufacture locally if we need to?"

"It's really critical that we not only work on vaccine development efforts but at the same time in parallel figure out how we are going to manufacture and deploy the vaccine as well – so when there is a vaccine ready, there's no waiting around."

The Government hasn't yet released its national strategy for vaccines.

One leading scientist, Otago University's Associate Professor James Ussher, has called for up to $10m towards the effort.

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He argued that could help New Zealand get access to a suitable vaccine faster, and strengthening local capacity in vaccine production would have longer-term benefits in helping to meet future challenges.

Dr Shivali Gulab says from New York:
Dr Shivali Gulab says from New York: "How we are going to manufacture and deploy the vaccine as well?" Photo / Supplied

Gulab said of the $10m call: "That is a figure that is being stated, and certainly, it would enable us to evaluate vaccine platforms, establish pre-clinical testing in New Zealand, and gear up manufacturing for those candidates."

Just how far away a vaccine was remained unclear.

While scientists had given a best-case scenario of having one ready within 12 to 18 months, Gulab said it would be "incredible" if that could be done – adding that the process typically took a decade.

And there was no sure bet that a successful candidate would be found.

"It remains to be seen, but certainly this is the biggest effort we have seen globally towards any target," she said.

"This is a new virus and we don't know the type of vaccine that is required, we don't know the type of immune response that is required - and these are the things that we are learning more about every day."


She said the level of collaboration and openness amid the global industry was unprecedented.

University of Auckland vaccinologist Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo / Supplied
University of Auckland vaccinologist Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo / Supplied

University of Auckland vaccinologist Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris singled out one company that had developed an adjuvant allowing a better immune response and was now making it available for others.

"That is unheard of."

She was optimistic a vaccine would be found – potentially by "switching out" platforms already developed for the Sars and Mers coronaviruses, or drawing on similar cutting-edge technology behind the HPV vaccine.

"We're using every approach developed so far, and we are exploring every avenue – so we're not going into this completely blind here," she said.

"While some people have pointed out that we still don't have a vaccine for HIV, that's a very different virus because it keeps changing. This one doesn't change."