And they’re close – a number of approaches are about to begin human trials – bandage-style micro-needle stickers with traditional arm shots. Yet experts say the widespread use of vaccines could be in at least a few years.
“If everything went perfectly, well, [it would take] 18 months to two years minimum, “says Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health. “More realistic, three to four years and it would still be quick. “
However, Tracey and other frontline researchers of the pandemic have been more hopeful in recent times.
“We will defeat this virus, whether it is 18 months, two years or four years,” he told The Post. “Our treatment protocols are improving every day.”
Here’s what we know so far.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
One of the most promising COVID-19 vaccines is in the work of Moderna Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Massachussets, biotechnology company, and human trials have already started – bringing it closer to the necessary FDA approval .
The vaccine was developed at a rapid rate, in part due to China’s publication of genetic sequencing of the new coronavirus in January, which gives scientists around the world a head start. The researchers were also able to refurbish previous research on a vaccine against another coronavirus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and its outbreak in 2012.
Another vaccine available is from Novavax, a Maryland company that reworked its previous research on vaccines against similar coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and its outbreak in 2002-2004. According to TIME, Novavax has “several candidates” who will be ready to be tested on humans in the coming months.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are also hoping to start human clinical trials this spring for their newly developed vaccine that uses micro-needle technology to deliver the drug, rather than a real needle. The vaccine was also based on previous research on MERS and SARS, and their work was recently published in The Lancet.
“These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, tell us that a particular protein, called peak protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” said lead co-author Dr Andrea Gambotto, Associate Professor of Surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine. “We knew exactly where to fight this new virus. “
Another vaccine trial that has been approved by the FDA for human testing is that of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, supported by Bill and Melinda Gates. Like the others, the vaccine is a derivative of a previously developed MERS vaccine that already had a promising phase 1 study.
How quickly can a vaccine go from testing to widespread use?
Moving from mice to humans for global use doesn’t happen overnight. Some vaccines take decades to use, if ever.
Tracey notes that flu and polio vaccines “have taken decades” to develop, and when it comes to viruses like COVID-19, there is a two-pronged approach to drug research: you you can try to find a vaccine to treat a large population or you can treat the virus head-on, like with HIV, for example. After all these years, there is still no HIV vaccine, but scientists have found drugs that treat the virus.
When it comes to developing a vaccine, once the human testing phase begins, scientists must first determine if the vaccine elicits an antibody response, Tracey told the Post. Next, scientists must see if the antibodies produced are effective against the virus. Then, of course, the researchers must make sure that the antibodies are not dangerous.
“Some people make good antibodies and others make bad antibodies, and some people can make both,” says Tracey. “Bad antibodies can make the infection worse. “
For example, if you immunize 1,000 people with a vaccine that protects 900, but it worsens 100 people, it’s a disaster, says Tracey.
“You can’t get the clock running faster,” says Tracey. “You can’t rush these things. A vaccine is given to healthy people. It must have almost no side effects. “
What treatments are available?
The CDC website is clear: “There is no drug or other therapy approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to prevent or treat COVID-19.”
But the agency lists two therapies being studied to treat COVID-19.
First, the controversial hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, which are taken orally and have been used in the past for the treatment of malaria and certain inflammatory conditions, are also being studied as “treatment of patients with mild, moderate COVID-19 and severe ”. According to the CDC. But there is only anecdotal evidence that the drug could fight the coronavirus, and federal officials do not recommend taking the drug in an uncontrolled environment.
Its potential side effects include everything from fatal heart arrhythmias to loss of vision, ringing in the ears, vomiting, mood swings, rashes, and hair loss.
A second drug, Remdesivir, manufactured by California-based biotechnology company Gilead Sciences, has been in the works for a decade. It was once considered a potential treatment for Ebola, but these trials have failed. The results of the first clinical trial testing Remdesivir – administered IV – for COVID-19 are expected this month.
The CDC says – but does not name – that there are many other treatments underway.
One such treatment is the Japanese flu medicine favipiravir, which is already used as a treatment in Turkey and Japan. Manufactured by Fujifilm, the drug was found to improve lung function in 91% of patients in a Chinese study. On Tuesday, three Massachusetts hospitals received FDA approval to launch the first clinical trials for the drug.
Another promising treatment comes from researchers at Johns Hopkins, who have developed a therapy that uses the blood plasma of cured patients. Last week, the FDA approved a clinical trial for Johns Hopkins to test therapy as a preventative measure in healthy people. The university is also awaiting FDA approval for another trial – this time on patients who are “mildly or moderately ill to see if the serum will keep them out of the ICU and help them return to health”, according to the university.