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Which COVID-19 vaccine works best? A new lab network promises an answer

October 6, 2020, 1:42 PM UTC

Is Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine better than AstraZeneca’s? Is Pfizer’s vaccine superior to Sinovac’s? Now we may actually be able to find out.

In the next few weeks, the world may begin to see the first results from various late-stage human clinical trials. That will give an initial indication of which vaccines are effective and safe. But it still won’t answer the question: Which vaccine is really the best?

Last week, however, an international organization took a step that will bring us closer to finding an answer.

CEPI, the international public-private partnership dedicated to aiding the production of vaccines that can stem global epidemics, said it was establishing uniform testing procedures in five labs around the world that will enable like-for-like comparisons between COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

The labs will use the same chemical reagents and follow the same protocols to assess the neutralizing antibody levels found in the blood of those who are inoculated with the various vaccine candidates.

The move is significant because until now attempts to compare published results of the immune response in blood samples of those who have taken part in early stage human testing of vaccines have been stymied by a lack of standardized tests, protocols, and equipment. This has frustrated some vaccine researchers.

“There is no way to draw direct comparisons, as different labs may use different measurements to infer immune response,” said Richard Hatchett, the former head of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who is now CEPI’s chief executive officer.

The new labs are located in the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, India, and Bangladesh. The U.K. lab, run by government agency Public Health England, is also coordinating with Nexelis, a biotechnology company in Canada, and will supply the reagents used by all of the labs in the network.

By using the same reagents and standardized protocols, the new labs will also enable some vaccine candidates to potentially reach approval faster: If a vaccine being tested with the standardized protocol shows an immune response that is better than that of another vaccine candidate already proven effective in clinical trials, it will be a strong indication that the new vaccine will provide at least as much, if not better, protection than the one already approved.

The new vaccine would still have to be tested for safety, but having the comparison data might speed its approval, experts say.

On the other hand, if a vaccine showed much lower immunogenicity than one already approved, it might be an indication that efforts on the second vaccine candidate should be abandoned.

Hatchett said a standardized protocol and designated laboratory network had never been set up so quickly before.

CEPI has helped to fund nine COVID-19 vaccine efforts so far, including the efforts of the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax, Inovio, and CureVac. But the organization said its designated labs would be available to any company that wanted to test its vaccine using the standardized protocol.

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