Hopes are running high across the globe that experts will develop a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year. And they’re not unfounded. Within just a few weeks of discovering the virus, experts in China sequenced its genome and shared it with the rest of the world. Understanding of the viruses structure was achieved shortly after that. More than any other time in history, we’re technologically equipped to tackle this threat. But even with the whole world working together to develop vaccines and pharmaceutical treatments, they might not be able to put an end to this pandemic in the way many people are hoping or expecting. Here’s what we know so far.
How close are scientists to finding a coronavirus vaccine?
Companies from all corners of the globe are racing to find the solution to one of the worst health crises for generations. Now, after months of hard work, the first large-scale human trials for a coronavirus vaccine are scheduled to start in July.
Johnson & Johnson began work on their treatment in January using the same technology they used to make an experimental Ebola vaccine in 2019. The trials will involve 1045 healthy adults aged 18 years and up, and will take place in the U.S. and Belgium.
This is only one of at least 124 COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed, according to the World Health Organisation, and the others aren’t fair behind. Like the J&J vaccine, many of these are building on previous efforts to deal with viral outbreaks, particularly those involving other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS. The fact that we had a head start due to these previous outbreaks is good news, and according to Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed, US health officials are sounding increasingly confident that a vaccine will be ready for distribution by December.
Along with J&J, there are heaps of other formidable companies leading the charge. These include Biotech firm, Moderna, British pharmaceutical giant, AstraZeneca, as well as Merck, and Pfizer. Though it’s hard to predict which one of these will be with winner of this race – not that that’s stopped the public and news outlets from trying – the fact that they’re all working towards the same end is another definite plus.
How do vaccines work?
At this point, it’s probably not necessary to explain this to you, so we’ll keep it brief:
Vaccines mimic bacterial or viral infections –without actually subjecting you to the real thing – in order to train your body to produce antibodies which could fend off a real attack.
According to Vergano, “The biggest hope for a vaccine came after a May study showed that nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 produces antibodies to the coronavirus, (or SARS-CoV-2), meaning that the virus can be fought with vaccination”.
Most of the vaccines currently in development would need to be administered annually in order to provide protection against coronavirus, like a flu shot. They’re usually made of killed off or weakened virus particles.These vaccines, writes Vergano, “need to be administered year after year and are sometimes only around 30% effective at blocking an infection”, but at least they help to lessen the severity of the disease and thus fatalities (This differs from more effective vaccines, like the one for measles, which can provide lifelong immunity).
Another approach, and one being studied by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, involves coating a chimpanzee virus with the tiny spikes that cover the surface of SARS-CoV-2. “The chimp virus causes a harmless infection in humans, but the spike proteins will prime the immune system to recognise signs of a future SARS-CoV-2 invasion,” writes Vergano. Early data, however, shows the results of these trials on monkeys to have been underwhelming, so let’s not hold out breath just yet.
One more cutting-edge method is Moderna’s genetic vaccine. This involves only the genes that cells need to produce the coronavirus spike being injected into patients. They’ll begin trials of this vaccine on 30 000 people in July.
Will we go back to normal once we find a vaccine?
Despite all the optimism surrounding the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine, simply finding one might not be a magic fix to all our pandemic problems. Developing vaccines is by no means a simple science, and there are a number of hurdles that scientists have to navigate. They’ll doubtless be encountering more and more as the search continues.
First and foremost, – many medical centres working on vaccines are finding themselves running low on trial participants (believe it or not), as infection numbers in many developed countries begin to drop. The effectiveness, and the speed, of these studies, depend directly on the size of the outbreaks where they take place. When infection numbers dwindle, so do the test subjects.
Additionally, a test group of 20 000 people may not necessarily be an accurate indication of the negative side effects of a new vaccine. While the benefits of long-standing vaccines, like the MMR vaccine, are time-tested and proven to outweigh the fractional percentage of negative side-effects, this is not necessarily the case with brand new ones.
Furthermore, it would be a problem if distribution of a successful vaccine takes longer than the duration of immunity it provides. If a vaccine provides two years of protection but takes five years to be administered to everyone, it could leave pockets of infection which may cause sporadic outbreaks until people are revaccinated.
That’s why it’s important that a vaccine be administered to everyone as quickly as possible. But, therein lies the potential for further difficulties. Vergano writes that rare side effects may only emerge after millions of people take the vaccine, and that these may not be noticed amongst the handful of trial participants. During this hurried distribution, then, we may see more challenges arising.
Another thing that might slow down the actual vaccine production – and in fact has many times in the past – is capitalism. Life-saving vaccines for diseases, especially diseases that hit low-income communities hardest, can have a hard time finding funding. When there’s no business incentive for companies to produce a treatment, they can languish in development and production. Vaccines, which only need to be administered once rather than taken daily or monthly, provide very little financial incentive for organisations driven by income. This was particularly prevalent during the battle against the Ebola epidemic in Africa.
This entire pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and so it’s tough for experts to predict what will happen after all these companies have started and finished their vaccine trials.
“Even if a vaccine doesn’t prevent the disease entirely, it can still be useful if it reduces the severity of the illness. But the lower levels of protection could also mean that an inoculated patient could still spread the virus, which means other control measures would be needed to protect high-risk groups.”
He adds that the search for this vaccine may even be as fruitless as the 40-year effort to find an HIV vaccine.”Such an outcome would require weighing the trade-offs that may be necessary to live in a world where SARS-CoV-2 may be lurking for years, ” he writes.
This means that it may not be the best idea to expect the sudden end of social distancing measures and your (now trendy) masks in the near future. Rather, we need to continually adapt to the situation we’re in and make the most of it regardless of the fact that our “normal” is a thing of the past.
It’s extremely difficult to make predictions about the future of this pandemic, as it has been since the very start. Rest assured, we’ll keep bringing you updates on the situation, and if you want to read more about this topic, we’ve compiled a list of great resources for you.