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WHO scientist sees regulators cooperating to speed COVID-19 vaccine approval

(Reuters) - Regulators that normally work within their own countries or regions will likely harmonize efforts on potential COVID-19 vaccines to speed up their approvals once they become available, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on Friday.

World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan attends a press conference organised by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Swaminathan, answering questions on social media platforms, also said testing vaccines for safety and efficacy - usually a years-long process - could be accelerated to just six months in the midst of the pandemic, if data satisfied regulators that they have enough information to issue approvals.

Still, she said, safety would be paramount.

“Whilst speed is important, it cannot be at the cost of compromising on the safety or the efficacy standards,” she said.

“It’s not the case that the first vaccine is going to be rushed through into injecting millions of people without having established the fact whether it’s really protecting you and whether it’s safe enough for use in large populations.”

There are more than 200 COVID-19 vaccines in development, with two dozen in human trials and a handful now entering late-stage studies in thousands of patients. Swaminathan cited Moderna's MRNA.O experimental mRNA vaccine, another which is a collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca AZN.L, China's Cansino Biologics 6185.HK candidate, and vaccine development project in Russia.

For regulators to approve a vaccine, developers will have to follow trial participants for months and show that there are fewer infections among people given the vaccine than among those given a placebo or control shot.

“We would like to see as high protection as possible - 80%, 90% - that would be fantastic,” she said.

Swaminathan cautioned that only a small number of potential COVID-19 vaccines are likely to make it through all trial stages and be approved for use.

“We have a very robust pipeline of vaccine candidates, which is excellent, because normally the success around 10%,” she said.

Asked if the world could fend off the coronavirus pandemic without a vaccine, Swaminathan said pursuing a so-called herd immunity strategy would be deadly. Some 60% of a population needs to be infected with COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity, she said, a level which would see many people dying of the disease.

Reporting by John Miller and Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Potter and Hugh Lawson