As the coronavirus disease — COVID-19 — continues to take its toll across the world, both human and economic, the question on everyone's mind is "how long before we have a vaccine?".
The coronavirus vaccine research made headlines earlier this month when reports surfaced that United States President Donald Trump allegedly tried to poach German scientists to ensure it would be available exclusively for the US.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, however, assured the world that the rights to the research were not for sale.
While the race for the vaccine continues, experts have estimated that the process of creating a vaccine to making it available can take up to 12-18 months.
Here, we look into what the process entails and which countries are working on finding a cure to the disease that is affecting more than half of the world.
The process of creating a vaccine is complex and time-consuming as it involves several procedures, starting from identifying the genetic sequence and isolating the virus to creating the vaccine and then running human trials. While scientists in China, US, Germany and elsewhere are moving fast on the front, it might still be a while before the vaccine is produced, scaled up and is made available for use by the public.
To shorten the process, some scientists are attempting to find a cure through drugs already in use for other viruses. Others are looking at the headways made in finding vaccines for previous coronaviruses (COVID-19 is just one of the coronaviruses) like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) — before these projects were shelved as the viruses were controlled — and trying to adapt them for COVID-19.
Vaccine to be ready for ‘emergency use’ in April: China
Chinese health officials earlier in March made an announcement that they were in the process of creating a vaccine that could be ready for use in April, Voice of America reported.
The announcement came as a surprise because experts believe vaccines can take several months before being available for use, considering they need to go through safety and efficacy tests on humans.
“According to our estimates, we are hopeful that in April some of the vaccines will enter clinical research or be of use in emergency situations,” National Health Commission’s Science and Technology Development Center Director Zheng Zhongwei said, without specifying in what situations the vaccine could be used.
According to VOA, Chinese law allows vaccines developed for major public health emergencies to “be deployed for urgent use under specified conditions, if the National Medical Products Administration considers that the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks".
CanSino Biologics Inc., the co-developer of the vaccine along China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, has also confirmed that it has received government approval for human trials and announced that the trials will begin in Wuhan, Bloomberg reported.
Earlier, a study in China, following experiments on monkeys, gave some hope of vaccine as it was found that re-exposure to the virus showed no recurrence of COVID-19.
Successes in the US
Before China’s announcement, the most successful attempt so far was by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' (NIAID) scientists and their collaborators at Moderna Therapeutics, a Boston-based biotech company. Scientists at Moderna took just 42 days after the virus’ genetic sequencing was identified in China because they attempted a new genetic method which does not involve growing huge amounts of virus, which takes months, TIME reported.
In practice, traditional vaccination methods introduce microbes into the body for it to build immunity by producing the right kinds of proteins to fight the virus or bacteria. Moderna’s method is different because its vaccines, rather than containing the virus itself, contain mRNA — the genetic material that creates proteins. In simple terms, the vaccine tells the body which proteins to create to fight the virus rather than introducing the virus and letting the body figure out how to fight it.
This method allows for the vaccines to be scaled up quickly, and if successful, can be helpful in containing not only COVID-19 but all fast-spreading virus and bacteria.
The National institute of Health (NIH) in the US announced that the first volunteer — a healthy 45-year-old woman — “received the investigational vaccine” on March 16. “The open-label trial will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 55 years over approximately 6 weeks,” NIH said.
While the trials are humanity’s best hope in fighting the coronavirus disease, not much far behind is another US-based company called Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which aims to begin testing its own vaccine for safety — not efficacy — next month.
Germany’s CureVac, which had reportedly been contacted by Trump administration, is also among prominent companies in the race and is likely to begin safety tests in June. These will be followed by efficacy tests.
Vector Institute in Russia, which had previously worked on the Ebola virus, has also said that laboratory tests of prototypes on animals are going to begin soon and we should expect vaccines to be ready for human testing by June.
Several other companies and organisations across the globe are in the race for developing a vaccine for the virus but even with all the existing and possible breakthroughs, experts suggest that it could take up to a year — or more — before the vaccine is made available for the public.
"When you think about how many people we will want to vaccinate — once we have a vaccine — around the world, we're talking billions, and that's a huge challenge," David Loew, the executive vice president of Sanofi Pasteur, was quoted as saying by AFP.
"We need to ensure the safety. It's going to take 12 to 18 months until you have a registered vaccine on the market."