A nationwide level 3 COVID-19 alert issued on May 19 has disrupted people’s lives and caused worry about vaccine eligibility amid a shortage of doses in Taiwan. Fortunately, interim results released last week by Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp for the phase 2 clinical trials of its vaccine candidate raised hopes for locally developed shots.
Medigen told a videoconference that its vaccine candidate has a seroconversion rate of 99.8 percent, meaning almost all participants in the trials displayed virus-specific immune responses after getting a shot. Only 0.7 percent of vaccinated participants developed a fever, while other side effects — such as muscle soreness and tiredness — were limited, indicating that Medigen’s vaccine candidate poses no major safety concerns.
Still, whether the Medigen vaccine is effective against COVID-19 requires additional research. The WHO has yet to establish a common standard for COVID-19 vaccines, and the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency use authorization (EUA) to vaccines only after evaluating data from at least 3,000 subjects and receiving efficacy results that are at least on a par with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The efficacy data — crucial to gaining EUA approval in other countries — were not part of Medigen’s interim results. The phase 2 trials show whether there are differences between the participants who received the vaccine candidate and those who received a placebo. Phase 3 trials would determine how effective the vaccine is against COVID-19.
Nevertheless, even as people with opposing viewpoints debate the soundness of developing local vaccines when the government is still procuring doses from overseas, the “unblinding” of the Medigen data gave a significant boost to people’s confidence in domestic vaccines, as shown by online opinion polls released over the past few days.
The positive results so far have given people hope, even if it is still too early to say whether Medigen’s vaccine candidate would be effective against COVID-19.
More importantly, the public’s reaction shows that most agree that Taiwan must have the capacity to produce vaccines locally so that it can fight epidemics, especially as it is excluded from the WHO. If Taiwan had its own vaccines today, there would be fewer people slandering government officials and tarnishing the image of local vaccine manufacturers.
New COVID-19 variants continue to emerge worldwide and epidemiologists have said that people might need to learn to live with COVID-19, as with seasonal influenza. Vaccines are essential for Taiwan’s prosperity, the health of Taiwanese and national security. Local firms must research, develop and produce reliable and effective vaccines not controlled by other nations.
However, vaccine development requires long-term government backing, including strong policy support and close cooperation between the government and industry to reduce investment risks.
Taiwan has outstanding vaccine research and development capabilities, but the transition from laboratory research to commercial production has not been one of its strengths.
If the nation could invest more resources in vaccine-related research, development and production, and if individuals, businesses and the government could all get on the same page regarding a long-term strategy for vaccine development, it would not need to fight tooth and nail to obtain foreign vaccines when the next epidemic strikes.
To achieve this, policymakers must support the vaccine and biotech sectors with every ounce of resources and funding the nation can muster — just as they do for the semiconductor industry.
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