As Turkey works to domestically produce a coronavirus vaccine, with the leading candidate in late-stage clinical trials already, a second vaccine could begin human trials by late January, Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank said Sunday.
“We are in close coordination with the Health Ministry to start human trials. Plans are underway to manufacture 50 million doses for the first batch,” Varank said.
The minister’s remarks came as he toured Nobel Pharmaceutical’s biotechnological medicine facilities in Istanbul, where he received a briefing from the vaccine’s developers.
According to the company, the vaccine is being developed with the latest technology and uses virus-like particles (VLP), which mimic the structure of the coronavirus but contain no genetic material from it.
Used by more than 100 vaccines across the world, the method is commonly used in the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. None of the coronavirus vaccines approved so far use VLP.
Recent studies suggest VLP vaccines for influenza could provide stronger and longer-lasting protection against flu viruses than conventional vaccines.
“Since it’s a very innovative method, there could be demand for it worldwide,” Varan said.
Explaining Turkey’s efforts to produce a domestic COVID-19 vaccine, Varank said the country was ready to provide the necessary support.
“We told scientists that we would back them as long as they could come up with a project about a vaccine, drug or any protective measure against the coronavirus. We established the COVID-19 platform at the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK).
“We have currently approved 17 projects; eight of them are coronavirus vaccines,” he said.
Turkey’s leading COVID-19 vaccine candidate is currently in phase 2 trials and is being jointly developed by Erciyes University and Koçak Pharma. The country hopes it can be approved and rolled out by April.
Regarding the VLP vaccine, the minister said it was one of the most promising projects currently being developed.
“The research into the COVID-19 vaccine using the VLP method is one of the most important ones on the table. Our professors, Ihsan and Mayda Gürsel, actually started working with VLP vaccines for another platform but quickly brought it to us when the outbreak began.”
According to Varank, the vaccine is ready to begin human trials but first needs to be produced in small quantities and approved first.
“Limited-run production also needs to be tested. Toxicity tests need to be completed to make sure they pose no danger to the health of humans or any other living being. We plan to complete these by the end of this month and move to the trials,” he said.
“Since it’s a protein-based vaccine, we believe it to be quite safe and highly potent. But of course, it needs to be proved with clinical trials first.”
According to Varank, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) coronavirus vaccine development list included several with the VLP technique, but only one of them was in currently phase 1 trials. “Hopefully, we will be the second.”
Speaking about capacity, Varank said the vaccine can be produced for up to 50 million doses for the first batch, with the option to increase output if there is demand.
As Varank broke the good news, a member of the country’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board said the end of face masks could come sooner if people set aside their unfounded hesitance regarding vaccines.
“Life without face masks could come sooner if people could stop hesitating about vaccines. But as long as doubts remain, the vaccination campaigns will take longer. If we can complete the campaign on time, we can all relax a little bit more by summer,” professor Ateş Kara told Demirören News Agency (DHA).
Explaining that at least some parts of life, like education, need to return to normal as soon as possible, Kara said vaccines were the strongest weapon humanity has against the pandemic.
“For example, we need to move to reopen schools and universities at once. Vaccines are the strongest weapon we have in that regard. If we move the inoculate those at highest risk, we can ease the restrictions slightly,” he said.
Reiterating that the country has witnessed significant drops in case numbers since the introduction of lockdowns and restrictions back in November, Kara said the measures proved their effectiveness, and they shouldn’t be eased prematurely.
The Health Ministry on Saturday reported 9,537 daily coronavirus cases, down from around 30,000 before the restrictions were reimposed. The country currently has more than 120,000 active coronavirus cases.
“There is a downward trend in our coronavirus figures, but we need to consider several things before we move to ease restrictions. One of them is the mutated variant that originated from the United Kingdom. Those infected with the new strain are being kept in isolation, but we still need to keep our guard up and keep using face masks for the time being.”