Researchers and scientists all over the world are rushing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. As of the 18 of June 2020, there are 194 vaccines in varying stages of development around the world, according to The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s (LSHTM) tracker.
How does a vaccine work?
Vaccines aim to introduce a person to a virus without getting them sick. This can be done by introducing part of the virus, a weakened version of the virus, or a dead virus. All vaccines aim to introduce a virus’ antigens to the immune system. This means that if the person later comes into contact with the virus, their immune system can recognize the virus and will be protected by the antigens.
What types of vaccines are currently being developed for the coronavirus?
Of the 194 vaccines currently in development, only 8 are inactivated, meaning they use a dead version of the virus. A much larger number of teams - 61- are trying to develop a protein subunit vaccine. These work by introducing key parts of the virus so that the body is protected by them if the person ever comes into contact with the virus.
There are also 24 RNA and 13 DNA vaccines in development. RNA vaccines work by attempting to stimulate cells to produce antigens that will then be detected by and attached to the immune system. DNA vaccines work similarly by altering the DNA of a cell so that it produces specific antigens that the immune system then detects and forms an attachment with.
39 teams are working on a viral vector vaccine. Viral vector vaccines use harmless viruses that have the antigens from the virus that the vaccine is being designed to protect against. The harmless viruses act as a delivery system to introduce the antigens into the human body. Some viral vectors are replicating viral vectors, meaning that they multiply once inside the body to produce more of them, whereas non-replicating viral vectors do not.
3 live-attenuated vaccines are also being developed. These use a weakened or reduced version of the virus to introduce it to the immune system so it knows how to respond and is protected if it comes into contact with the full virus. These viruses in live-attenuated vaccines can infect the body and cause a response from the immune system but are too weak to make a person ill.
How soon could a vaccine for coronavirus be available?
In short, no one really knows. Some of the most optimistic projections - such as that from the USA’s Operation Warp Speed, set up to accelerate and facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments - are suggesting a finished vaccine by the end of the year with some having to wait till 2021 for access to it. This is corroborated by the World Health Organization (WHO), who recently stated on the 18 of June 2020, that they were expecting to have a few million doses of a vaccine produced by the end of 2020 and 2 billion by the end of 2021. The first batch of vaccines would be aimed at the most vulnerable, specifically three groups; front-line workers who have a high exposure rate, such as nurses; those most vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions; and people living in environments with high transmission rates, such as refugee camps and slums.
Other scientists speculate that it may not be until the summer of next year when there is a finished vaccine. However, many scientists want to reassure people and make them feel that progress is being made but are cautious of making promises that they cannot keep.
Further still want to avoid talking of a deadline at all, the vaccine will be ready when it's ready is a sentiment shared by many. They say that whilst funding and equipment help, the process to develop a vaccine is long and lengthy for a reason and this is a field where cutting corners could result in pandemic worse than the one we are currently facing.
One thing many scientists can agree on is that any vaccine released for distribution must have fully completed Phase III of development and testing. This phase comprises testing the vaccine on 1,000 to 10,000 healthy people and ensuring that it is effective at preventing the virus whilst also being safe for a larger and more diverse and varied population. This is critical in ensuring that a vaccine is safe for distribution among the general population and is effective in preventing the virus.
What does this all mean for me?
Based on the views of many scientists and the stages many vaccines are at in the development process, we shouldn’t get our hopes up about a miracle vaccine ending the pandemic immediately in the coming months. However, we should not feel devoid of hope for the future and the possibility of a vaccine for COVID-19; billions of dollars are being pumped into the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus and there are teams all over the world working together on this, so who really knows what could happen? This could be the moment in history when the human race defines itself to all future generations as capable of immense and incredible innovations in short periods of time when it is required. This could be the time the human race finally steps up to the plate, and to the challenge, and for once, decides to take action and is equal to the task.
In the meantime, we all need to continue to follow the restrictions put in place by our respective governments and do our part to stay safe and keep those around us safe.
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Chen, Caroline, and ProPublica. “How-and When-Can the Coronavirus Vaccine Become a Reality?” FiercePharma, 19 June 2020, www.fiercepharma.com/vaccines/how-and-when-can-coronavirus-vaccine-become-a-reality.
Hermes. “The Global Covid-19 Vaccine Race.” The Straits Times, 5 June 2020, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/the-global-covid-19-vaccine-race.
“Operation Warp Speed Accelerates COVID-19 Vaccine Development.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2222284/operation-warp-speed-accelerates-covid-19-vaccine-development/.
“Vaccine Types.” Vaccines, www.vaccines.gov/basics/types.