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Finnish-developed, open-source coronavirus vaccine nearly ready for testing

A Finnish team has developed a coronavirus vaccine for testing, but fears nags in production.

Testing of the vaccine developed by a team of Finnish professors could start "around midsummer" - in late June. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

Even though Finnish researchers have a promising vaccine that could be going into testing in about six weeks, there are serious concerns that once any effective vaccine is commercially available, supplies will be snapped up by the world's biggest countries.

"I see it as a significant risk that we won't get vaccine in time and in the quantities needed, rather we'll find ourselves at the end of queue," says Helsinki University Professor of Virology Kalle Saksela.

Saksela is one of a team of three Finnish professors who together are finalising development of a coronavirus vaccine nasal spray.

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Finland should be actively engaged in launching a vaccine. We should not just wait on development by the international pharmaceutical companies," says Helsinki University Virology Professor Kalle Saksela. Image: Jani Saikko / Yle

The project is well advanced and according to Saksela, testing could begin "around midsummer", which falls on 20 June.

The other two members of the team who have been working at the University of Eastern Finland are Seppo Ylä-Herttuala and Kari Alitalo.

Saksela speaks calmly, but it is evident that he is frustrated by what he sees as Finland's passive attitude towards a vaccine.

"Finland should be actively engaged in obtaining a vaccine. We should not just wait on development by the international pharmaceutical companies," says Saksela.

"I'd hope that more consideration would be given here to what more we can do than wait that some commercial entity makes us an offer. I'd hope that someone else than just the developers were in a hurry," he told Yle.

Saksela thinks it important for Finland to have control of its own vaccine production. It would not be wise, in terms of national security of supply, to depend solely on the pharmaceutical giants.

Starting production

It would be entirely possible to start up domestic vaccine production, and quickly.

For example, Finvector, a gene and cell therapies research and development company set up in Kuopio by one of the team, Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, uses techniques that could be adapted to manufacture a vaccine.

The company's CEO, Timo Ristola says he thinks it entirely possible that Finland could produce all of the coronavirus vaccine it will need. In addition to his own company, there are four others in the country that have the know-how to do the job. He adds that if production starts, there will be enough work to go around.

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Finvector CEO Timo Ristola thinks it entirely possible that Finland could produce all of the coronavirus vaccine it will need. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

Ristola adds that Finvector has had three initial approaches from abroad about cooperating on a coronavirus vaccine.

Tommi Heikura, who is the head of research at the University of Eastern Finland's A.I. Virtanen Institute for cellular and molecular sciences, agrees with Ristola. Once a vaccine is available demand will be too high for even the pharmaceutical giants to satisfy.

"The first vaccine producer will hardly be able to deliver its vaccine to the whole of the world. When the first vaccine comes out, it would good for there to be other producers in Finland, in Europe, elsewhere in the world who could share some of the burden," points out Heikura.

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Tommi Heikura of the A.I. Virtanen Institute at the University of Eastern Finland believes it will be essential for a variety of manufacturers to be involved in coronavirus vaccine production. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

According to Heikura production of a vaccine in Finland is possible, perhaps enough to satisfy all of the nation's needs.

"Linux" vaccine

The team of professors developing the vaccine are foregoing intellectual property rights to their work. In practice, they have gathered together research data in the field, refined it, added their own observations and are making it freely available.

This is much the same principle as that behind the open source Linux computer operating system, originally developed by Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki. Professor Saksela has described the goal of his team's project as the "Linux vaccine".

The downside is that it will be harder to generate profits off an open source vaccine. The profits of international pharmaceutical companies come from their patents and exclusive rights. This being the case, these pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to find the Finnish and free vaccine appealing, preferring to do their own proprietary R&D.

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Finland had vaccine production for over a century, but it was ended in 2003 as not being cost efficient. Image: Sami Takkinen / Yle

So far, the Finnish vaccine development team has not received any dedicated project funding. Instead, funds earmarked for projects that have been suspended because of the epidemic have been re-targeted.

Saksela says he hopes that the most time-consuming and expensive development phase, that is extensive human testing, can be for the most part be skipped. He admits that bypassing any test phase increases possible risks, but he stresses that the vaccine's development has been based on existing and tested data.

On the other hand, any delay in launching a vaccine further extends the ongoing human and economic suffering caused by COVID-19.