By Greg Reh, Global Life Sciences & Health Care leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP,
I recently moderated a panel of vaccine stakeholders at The Financial Times’ Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference. The panelists agreed that the pandemic has altered the vaccine landscape, which could lead to the development of an arsenal of vaccines that effectively target a wide range of pathogens—including new and emerging COVID-19 variants.
In the nearly two years since COVID-19 emerged as a pandemic, vaccine research and development (R&D) has accelerated significantly, and investments have soared. The efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines now in use—combined with the rapid speed in which they were developed—has changed the nature of vaccines. “In the future, we might put a COVID lens on everything we do to make the impossible seem possible,” said Lovisa Afzellius, origination partner at Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences innovation company that creates and develops biotechnology start-ups.
The future of vaccines: Five trends to watch
Judy Stewart, who heads US Vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, told attendees that the pandemic inspired a historically adversarial pharmaceutical industry to work together against a common enemy. The pandemic also highlighted the important role vaccines play in helping people stay free from other diseases, she said. Here’s a look at some of the key trends that could alter the vaccine ecosystem of the future:
- Bigger investments: Prior to the pandemic, most vaccines were produced by just a handful of companies, and R&D attracted little interest from investors. That has since changed, noted Rasmus Bech Hansen, co-founder and CEO of Airfinity, a health analytics company that provides real-time COVID-19 analysis and global health forecasts. In 2019, the global vaccine market was valued at $33 billion—about 2% of the overall pharmaceutical market.1 In 2021, the market reached $187 billion, with COVID-19 vaccines contributing $137 billion.2 Investments are coming primarily from governments that see vaccines as a type of “insurance policy” against future public health emergencies. The financial impact of COVID-19 was so massive that “a $100 billion investment is peanuts” in comparison, Rasmus said.
- A new generation of COVID-19 vaccines: The panel agreed the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines has been critical for helping the world move past the pandemic. The virus, however, continues to mutate and evolve, which will require vaccines to change. The next generation of vaccines should offer a broader range of protection against unknown and emerging COVID-19 variants and other beta coronaviruses. One panelist noted that the goal wasn’t to “chase variants,” but to develop vaccine candidates capable of eliciting broad immune response to help protect against known and emerging variants. In the future, Lovisa suggested that artificial intelligence might be used to develop “variant-proof” vaccines.
- Increased attention on existing vaccines: Vaccines already exist for many preventable diseases.3 Hepatitis B, for example, can be an expensive disease to manage, and it has no cure. While a vaccine has been available since the 1980s, only 25% of adults are vaccinated against the disease. Moreover, two-thirds of those who are chronically infected with Hepatitis B are unaware of their infection status, which increases the likelihood of transmission. Lovisa suggested that the RNA technology used for COVID-19 vaccines might be used for future vaccines.
- More combination vaccines: School-aged children are required to receive vaccinations against various childhood diseases. Several vaccines are often combined into the same dose. The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccines, for example, contain multiple vaccines in a single syringe. Judy suggested we could see combination vaccines recommended for adults. Lovisa added that existing vaccines could be promoted as an “extremely powerful tool” for preventing disease and ensuring well-being.
- New innovations: Many of the companies that entered the COVID-19 vaccine space early on have since pivoted their research to focus on other infectious diseases. Some of them are looking for ways to apply the technologies they developed, Rasmus said. This could lead to new and more effective vaccines, Rasmus predicted. “It’s startling how many infectious diseases might be prevented with a vaccine.”
Vaccinations against 10 different pathogens have saved more than 37 million lives globally, according to a study published early this year. Moreover, vaccinations have virtually eradicated childhood diseases such as polio, rubella, measles, and smallpox in the US.4
The speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed—combined with their high efficacy rates—is reshaping the landscape for vaccine developers and future vaccines.
1. Global vaccine market, World Health Organization/Market Information for Access to Vaccines, December 2020
2. Vaccines market work $187 billion in 2021, Meticulous Market Research, October 26
3. Estimating the health impact of vaccination against 10 pathogens in 98 low-income and middle-income countries: The Lancet, January 30, 2021
4. 14 diseases you almost forgot about (thanks to vaccines), CDC, June 4, 2021