InnovItalyUAE: Experts confidently predict a Covid-19 vaccine will be available at the start of 2021

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Professionals from Italy and the UAE discussed when a vaccine could be brought to the mass market in the fourth online forum hosted by The Embassy of Italy to the UAE in partnership with Khalifa University and Dubai Future Foundation

Abu Dhabi, UAE: A highly anticipated live online forum took place yesterday with experts from Italy and the UAE discussing test, tracking, a cure and a vaccine for Covid-19. With global figures showing over 47 million cases worldwide and climbing, and Italy one of the worst affected counties in Europe, the race to produce a viable vaccine for the disease is happening at pace.  

Hosted by the Embassy of Italy to the UAE as part of the InnovItalyUAE initiative, the Ambassador of Italy to the UAE was joined by renowned scientists and experts in the field including Prof. Rino Rappuoli and Prof. Andrea Crisanti.

InnovItalyUAE looks at opportunities to enhance bilateral cooperation in innovation between Italy and the UAE and is held in partnership with the Khalifa University of Science and Technology and the Dubai Future Foundation. COVID19: where do we stand with tracing, therapy and vaccine? is the fourth forum in a series of six discussing a range of prevalent innovation topics. 

His Excellency Nicola Lener, Ambassador of Italy to the UAE said, “The forum highlighted how important the research that is currently happening in Italy, the UAE and further afield around Covid-19. It was very reassuring to see that stakeholders from many specialties are working together to find the most efficient solution to bring a vaccine to the market.”

During the webinar, which was moderated by Massimo Cristaldi, Consultant Colorectal Surgery, Harley Colorectal Clinic and Team Member, Anti-covid19 Abu Dhabi, His Excellency was joined by:

Rino Rappuoli, Chief Scientist and Head External R&D, GSK Vaccines, Professor of Vaccines Research, Imperial College, London and Professor of Molecular Biology, University of Siena, who commented, “Thanks to scientific developments we should have a vaccine to control the pandemic in 2021. There are currently 40 vaccines in development across the world and due to the global public sector investing in the development of a vaccine in parallel, it has helped to speed up the process – which usually takes around 10 to 15 years – to less than 1 year. Among all the vaccines, 3 are the main types (protein subunit, DNA & RNA and viral vectors) and in the absence of approved drugs or vaccines, there is a pressing need to develop tools for therapy and prevention of Covid-19. Human monoclonal antibodies have very good probability of being safe and effective tools for therapy and prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease.”

Habiba Al Safar, Director, Khalifa University Biotechnology Center continued, “We are currently looking into the viral and host genomes to try and tackle this with a 360-degree approach. We are researching how the disease is transmitted and why it is affecting some people more severely than others; why some get the disease and others don’t; why the immune system is not showing symptoms in some individuals despite having the disease. Our research shows there is around 8 mutations of the virus.” 

Offering an insight into the situation in Vo’ town in Italy at the start of the pandemic, Andrea Crisanti, Director, U.O.C. Microbiology and Virology, Molecular Medicine Dept., Hospital – University of Padua added, “Contact tracing was found to be very inefficient as it requires a lot of logistics, effort and it is hard to scale. The best approach by far is network testing irrespective of contact or no contact. It’s the most affordable and economically rewarding, it’s scalable, it removes issues of privacy and we believe is the only way to prevent a third wave of the virus.”

Omar Najim, Senior Advisor, Chairman Office, Department of Health, Abu Dhabi discussed the importance of having in place an effective transportation infrastructure for a vaccine, “No one wants a situation where there is a vaccine at the end of the production line but it is unable to be transported to where it is needed. Once vaccines start to be approved, governments all over the world will face a hard challenge around logistics. Around 70 per cent of the vaccines will require the same transport system as current routine vaccinations, which require precise temperatures for transport, storage, processing and distribution. For example, 8,000 cargo planes would be required to carry vaccines to protect half the world’s population. We anticipate new technology will need to be developed and what we are learning from Covid-19 is the more scientific the approach, the more likely we are to succeed.” 

Ernesto Damiani, Senior Director of the Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Systems Institute at KU continued, “AI can help us to find a solution to slow the development of the pandemic. We are trying to use mobility models to know collectively what is going to happen for the next stage of the pandemic. For example, notification alerts could tell people if they have been in touch with someone who is positive so they can then ask for assistance.”

Discussing how Italy and the UAE is already working together, Pierluigi Petrone, Italian Pharmaceutical Industry Association (Farmindustria) said, “Italy and the UAE can become a bridge between Europe and the wider Middle East to tackle this pandemic. We can facilitate an exchange of knowledge and distribution.” 

Antonella Folgori, CEO, ReiThera Srl said, “We are working on innovative strategies to develop a vaccine asap. Many different countries are trying to address the challenge of developing a vaccine. ReiTheraSrl is a biotech company who has developed a platform vaccine technology based on the use of adeno viruses that are used, once made them totally safe in the lab, as shuttles to be injected in human body to obtain an immune response. For SarsCov2 we used the spike protein and put in the shuttle vector. We are a kind of unique reality, in Italy, where we can cover the development of a vaccine from the idea to the GMP manufacturing.” 

Taking about the clinical trial in process in Abu Dhabi, Nawal Al Kaabi, Chief Medical Officer, Chair of the SEHA infection Control Committee – Sheikh Khalifa Medical City said, “Abu Dhabi started to run antibody testing in July, then Sharjah, Bahrain Jordan and Egypt joined. We have had so many volunteers we moved the clinical trial to accommodate larger numbers.”

Andrea Beccari, Head R&D Platforms and Services of Dompé farmaceutici SpA and Coordinator, EXSCALATE commented, “We are involving more than 200 researchers in discovery and development, from design up to clinical verification. Computer simulations are very important as they can target multiple options.”

Cristina Silvano, Full Professor, Computer Engineering, DEIB Politecnico Milano and Team Member, EXSCALATE continued, “We can run simulations in days compared to weeks or months with computer technology. We are operating a supercomputing platform and techniques. HPC combined with AI for drug discovery to get synergy and it is energy efficient for sustainability. The challenge: Making feasible this month, the largest experiment ever done to screen 1 trillion data base in approx. 3 days.”

Youssef Idaghdour, Assistant Professor Biology, NYUAD and Researcher, NYU Abu Dhabi Research Institute gave insights into the tests the team is conducting, “We are using antigenic tests in saliva in order to detect more quickly the covid-19 virus in potential patients. From our experience working with malaria tests, we can lower the costs of the Covid-19 tests. The idea is to reduce the cost of the tests without compromising on the accuracy of the method. We agree that to test more frequently rather than testing everyone is an effective way forward.” 

Closing remarks were made by Jianyi Lin, Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics, Khalifa University, “It is clear from yesterday’s webinar that the role of technology and science along with statistics and mathematics is vital to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine and high-scale simulation. Personal and societal efforts in the production and distribution – from the scientific research to the distribution and final use – and again, this is a matter of contributions from each competent member OR component of society. Innovation is so important as it will affect the everyday lives of billions of people.” 

About Embassy of Italy in the UAE:

The Embassy of Italy in Abu Dhabi is a foreign mission of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation with the function of Italy’s diplomatic representation in the UAE.