Seven scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute on Tuesday said they were developing several vaccine candidates but will narrow down to the most promising.

Globally, 115 projects are currently in the race for a vaccine against the Covid-19 disease.

Five of them have now entered the clinical phase, according to the World Health Organisation. But how long before the first vaccine becomes available to the public remains unclear.

There is, however, consensus among experts that the earliest one could be made available for public deployment is between 12 to 18 months from now. This would certainly be unprecedented.

In a virtual meeting with a parliamentary committee yesterday, Kemri Director General Prof Yeri Kombe and a team of Kenyan scientists said the final prototypes at Kemri will undergo further tests before a clinical trial.

“Basically it takes a process and time. For us to identify a candidate vaccine prototype and putting all variables constant, we might get a candidate biomarker in the next six months,” Kemri principal research scientist Dr Muuo Nzou added.

Prof Kombe said Kemri scientists began by full genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 in 28 Kenyans who had tested positive.

He said they are analysing the results to determine if Kenya has a different strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Kenya has conducted the second-highest number of full genome sequences in Africa. 

As of Tuesday, DR Congo had conducted 42, Kenya 28, Senegal 23, Ghana 15, South Africa six, Algeria three and Nigeria one. 

The high number of tests in DR Congo are attributed to the development of laboratories in the country due to the Ebola outbreak.

Dr Nzou said it is not possible to determine when Kenya might have a locally developed vaccine if the candidates in Kemri are successful.

He said the candidate prototypes will be run through several laboratory tests before they move to the clinical level where they are tested on animals, then humans.

“Also clinical trials move from Phase I to Phase III before approval,” he said.

“We are hoping that very soon, within six months, we can start saying we have this biomarker that can be used for the vaccine.”

Prototypes can elicit an immune response against infections, but they must be trialed in animals and people to confirm their safety and efficacy.

The Kemri team appeared before the Senate Ad-hoc Committee on the Covid-19 Situation in the country.

The committee’s vice-chairperson Sylvia Kasanga had sought clarification on the institute’s timeline in coming up with the vaccine.

“On the vaccine that you are actually beginning to look at the process of creation, I want to know the timeline if at all you are proceeding with this?” The nominated senator asked.

But the scientists said the process of vaccine development is expensive and will require partnering with other interested organisations or persons.

Making vaccines is so cost-intensive and high risk that most pharmaceutical firms do not do it anymore.

Today, the global vaccine business is dominated by just four companies: Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi.

“The total cost of production from the start to the end cannot be less than $500 million. It is not cheap. Once we reach a point of candidate vaccine we must have a way of partnering with a company or some interested people,” Prof Kombe said.

Kenya enters the race for vaccines after it began a few months ago.

WHO says five candidates are already in the clinical trials, meaning they are being tested in people, in China and the United States. 

The remaining are in the exploratory or preclinical stage, the WHO said on Monday. 

None of these is developed by a research institution in Africa.

Scientists say it is important for Africa to join genome sequencing and the vaccine race to avoid the ‘Rotaviruses Vaccine Problem’.

This refers to the variations in the efficacy of vaccines in different regions.

For instance, the rotavirus vaccines – to prevent severe diarrhoea in young children – were effective in Europe and North America but less effective in Africa, because they were mainly based on rotavirus strains predominantly found in Europe and North America.

According to US biotechnology company Moderna, which began human trials for Covid-19 vaccine in Seattle last month, the world could have the first Covid-19 vaccine in October.

Such a vaccine would first be available for use by health workers, while the public would have to wait until early next year.