Argentina’s first vaccine against COVID-19, ARVAC-Cecilia Grierson, is currently in the final stages of the clinical phase and looking for volunteers nationwide to complete the process. It is being produced entirely in Argentina and is designed to protect against the COVID-19 variants present in the region.
The vaccine is being developed by the National University of San Martín, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), and the private Cassará laboratory. It has also received support from the National Agency for the Promotion of Research, Technological Development and Innovation, which depends on Argentina’s Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry.
“We could have settled for imported vaccines but we saw that every country that had developed them had been doing so for 30 years and not just from an urgency standpoint,” said Juliana Cassataro, leader of the vaccine project and CONICET researcher.
“That, plus the way that COVID-19 keeps changing, we became convinced that it was worth tackling this as a long-term project.”
The ARVAC-Cecilia Grierson vaccine, unlike other COVID-19 vaccines, is being developed as a recombinant protein vaccine. There are two types of vaccine: monovalent (which combats one variant at a time) and bivalent (two variants, in this case, Gamma and Omicron). Phase I trials tested the monovalent vaccine and found it to be safe. Phase II/III is set to compare the two types by introducing the bivalent vaccine and testing its efficacy.
Cassataro told the Herald that Argentina already had the necessary infrastructure to produce the vaccine — a strong pharmaceutical sector, packaging plants, clinical researchers, and a regulatory agency — but they “hadn’t been interwoven before the pandemic created that urgent need.”
“Argentina’s experience in getting vaccines was very traumatic,” said Jorge Cassará, board member of the Cassará laboratory. “Having the possibility to establish a base from which we can process and create vaccines gives us hope that if there were another pandemic, we could be in a good position to fight it.”
“It’s great to show that Argentina can develop innovations in health, which is important in both sanitary and economic terms,” said the businessman.
Cassará told the Herald that the initial report from stage 1 of phase II/III is expected towards the end of April and stage 2 should be completed by June. He said that there was enough raw material to create 4 million doses and, if approved, the first batch would be around 500,000 doses.
Despite the promising results, there are concerns about finding volunteers for the last phase of the clinical trials. Volunteers can sign up on the ARVAC website. They must be over 18 years old and have received a maximum of three covid-19 vaccines — that is, fully vaccinated with one booster shot. There is no upper age limit and volunteers may have any comorbidities.
“We need 1,800 volunteers for this phase and currently have a thousand who have signed up but about half of them have more than three vaccines,” said Cassará. “So in practice, we need about a thousand more volunteers.”
Cassataro emphasized that having a local COVID-19 vaccine was key to combating a disease with multiple and highly contagious variants that can spread.
“Covid is always changing and sometimes it spreads in certain regions and not others, so having a vaccine ready to go is important,” she said. “This vaccine is for babies who are going to be born into a world with COVID-19 and risk groups who need annual boosters.”
The vaccine is named after Cecilia Grierson, the first Argentine woman to receive a medical degree from Buenos Aires University in 1889 despite staunch opposition. A prominent socialist and feminist, she founded the first nursing school in the country.
“There are lots of women in the medical and biological field and when we started looking for a name we thought that it should be a doctor because, in the pandemic, they were on the front lines,” said Cassataro.
“Everything was difficult for her and she created so many projects regarding issues that represent us — we thought it was a good name for people to look up, remember, and learn from.”