About 70 companies around the globe are working around the clock to make vaccines for COVID-19. Will they succeed and when can we expect one to be available? There’s no simple answer to that. In his most recent interview with The Boston Globe, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that he’s cautiously optimistic there will be a COVID-19 vaccine available by the end of 2020 or early 2021. Steve Kemler, an investor and Managing Partner at the Stone Arch Group, hopes this timeline will prove to be accurate, but believes it may be optimistic.
First, it’s important to note that there are four different types of vaccines in development, as explained by the Nature Research journal. Biologically, they all work differently. The first one deploys a weakened or inactivated virus that has been “damaged,” for example by heat, and can’t cause an infection, but will draw an immune reaction. The second uses a genetically synthesized virus, made with “broken” replication gears so that it can’t multiply, but will still trigger the immune system to respond. The third one injects the coronavirus’s genome into our own cells—that genome can’t generate a full-blown virus, but will produce the infamous spike protein that our immune system can learn to recognize and remember. The last one uses little molecular snippets of the coronavirus to stimulate the same reaction in the body.
The first type is a classic vaccine-making method, perfected for generations, so companies pursuing it have a historically proven roadmap. However, making these vaccines can be slow because it requires starting with a large amount of real, infectious virus, which must be grown in top-level biosafety labs and handled by researchers in hazmat suits. The synthesized virus approach can be faster—the recently approved Ebola vaccine used that method. Injecting viral genetic material into humans is a very new technology that has never been tried before, so while it looks promising, the end result remains to be seen.
The encouraging fact is that there is enough diversity of vaccine approaches and vaccine makers—from pharmaceutical giants like Merck to mid-size Codagenix to smaller but no less ingenious players like Moderna, which is using the novel spike proteins method.
So that’s the good news. The wearisome news is that these vaccines are still months away and researchers can’t do a lot to speed them up. Historically, vaccines always took a long time to design and an even longer time to test. Devising a chemical compound that trains the immune system to mount a robust response without spiraling out of control and causing dangerous side effects is a fine line to walk.
It requires several consecutive phases of testing—from initial safety to exposing immunized individuals to the real, live and dangerous pathogen. Such tests used to take years, but now the companies are hoping to do them in accelerated fashion following the FDA’s fast-track approval process. Moderna is farther along than many others—it already successfully tested the vaccine’s safety in Phase I, is now testing its efficiency in Phase II and will start a larger trial soon.
So while the race is certainly progressing, widely available vaccines are still months away. To make the long wait easier, however, it helps remember that vaccination is one of the biggest success stories of modern medicine. The World Health Organization estimates that just between 2010 and 2015, vaccines prevented at least 10 million deaths. With so many coronavirus vaccines in progress, some of them will likely work. Truth is we only need one. We just have to be patient and let scientists reach the finish line.