The quest to develop a safe treatment for coronavirus has been front page news for nearly two months, rivaled only by an equally important part of the medical equation: a coronavirus vaccine.
“Vaccine development is usually measured in years and sometimes even decades,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, explains. “And there are some infectious diseases for which we have no vaccine after decades and decades of work, like HIV or hepatitis C, for example.”
Yet U.S health officials and pharmaceutical companies expect to have a reliable coronavirus vaccine ready within 12 to 18 months. Though a year may feel like a lifetime while COVID-19 causes economic catastrophe and quarantine anxiety, it’s actually sonic speed in the world of vaccine development.
Striking a Balance Between Time and Precaution
The coronavirus has impacted nearly every corner of the world and killed hundreds of thousands of people in just months. It makes sense that a vaccine for this novel virus is eagerly anticipated, but rushing the vaccine into production could do just as much harm as delaying it- or maybe more.
“Many people are asking, ‘Well why do we have to test the vaccines? Why don’t we just make the vaccines and give them to people?’ Well the world has learned many lessons in the mass use of vaccines and there’s only one thing more dangerous than a bad virus, and that’s a bad vaccine,” explained Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program.
“We have to be very, very, very careful in developing any product that we’re going to inject into potentially most of the world population. We have to be very, very, very careful that we first do no harm. So that’s why people are being careful.”
The 1976 swine flu highlights the truth of Ryan’s words. A new virus began spreading in January of that year at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The U.S rushed through vaccine development and within a year, about 25% of Americans had been vaccinated. However, adequate safety trials were skipped in favor of fast results, leading to devastating side effects such as the gradual paralysis known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. Hundreds of vaccine recipients became paralyzed and several died.
Today, the American citizens and people all around the world are counting on large pharmaceutical companies and research institutions to develop a vaccine as safely, effectively, and rapidly as possible.
Pfizer Begins Testing New Coronavirus Vaccine in Patients
At the beginning of May, Pfizer began testing its COVID-19 vaccine on 360 volunteers in the United States. The vaccine, known as an mRNA vaccine, helps the body make viral proteins that can trigger an immune response in the presence of the coronavirus.
Pfizer has designed multiple versions of the vaccine and plans to test all versions across the 360 volunteers. The safest vaccine versions that produce the best immune responses will be advanced to the next phase of testing.
Moderna Vaccine Approved for Phase 2 Study
At the end of April, Moderna announced its coronavirus vaccine will be approved for further evaluation. Known as mRNA-1273, the vaccine’s phase 2 study will occur this spring to evaluate the safety, adverse reactions, and immune responses of the vaccinations given to participants in phase 1.
Moderna intends to enroll 600 healthy adults and older adults in two cohorts for this section of its clinical trial. Participants will receive a placebo or a different dose of the vaccine candidate, then be followed through 12 months. This means the clinical trial’s third phase could begin as soon as the fall.
Other vaccines are also in development, including the candidates from Inovo, Oxford University, and Johnson & Johnson. They’re all racing to the finish line, and only time will tell the outcome.