Numerous UK newspapers recently celebrated the first volunteer to receive an injection in a safety trial of an experimental coronavirus vaccine. But while some claim that it may be possible for a vaccine to be ready within a year, the chances of that happening remain slim.
The UK trial, led by the University of Oxford, will ultimately involve 1,100 adults, half of whom will receive the experimental vaccine. The other half will receive a meningitis vaccine as a control. The team behind the trial hopes to move on to tests to assess the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine as early as August, raising hopes that a vaccine could be ready before the end of the year, and that this could be the answer to the difficult question of how the country is coming out of strict social distancing measures.
Unfortunately, these hopes are probably out of place. Maria Bottazzi, a vaccine design expert from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, calls the schedule “unrealistic.” Even if everything goes as planned in the first phase of the trials, Bottazzi underlines that the researchers will still need time to determine to what extent the vaccine protects people against covid-19 and whether it causes side effects when a the vaccinated person is then exposed to the virus.
There is no guarantee that the vaccine will be safe and effective. The 2013 study calculated that before entering clinical trials, the average experimental vaccine has a 6% chance of reaching the futures market. Among those entering the trials, a 2019 analysis suggests that the probability of success is 33.4%.
But even if the Oxford vaccine succeeds, there will still be the problem of scaling up manufacturing to produce hundreds of millions of doses. Bottazzi says this is the real bottleneck. At best, the world still plans another 12 to 18 months before a vaccine becomes widely available, she said.
This in itself would be a remarkable achievement. The 2013 study found that between 1998 and 2009, the average time to develop a vaccine was 10.7 years. This can be accelerated to some extent – since then, an Ebola vaccine has become the fastest vaccine ever developed, being produced in just five years.
But to bring that down to just 18 months, one would have to start the next steps in the development process before the previous ones are finished, says Bottazzi. This increases the risk of a significant loss of investment if the vaccine fails and raises questions about safety. An accelerated route, from early trials to larger scale manufacturing, would mean that researchers will not have as much time to study the long-term effects of a vaccine in trial participants before it is given to the public, for example.
“Between 1998 and 2009, the average time to develop a vaccine was 10.7 years”
In an attempt to speed things up, on April 21 British Health Minister Matt Hancock said the government would invest in manufacturing capacity in the hope that either the Oxford vaccine or another vaccine tested by Imperial College London, be successful. Similar measures are taken elsewhere. American philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he is helping build the manufacturing capabilities of seven vaccine candidates – a strategy he believes will lose billions of dollars but save time.
More than 100 vaccines against the coronavirus are currently in various early stages of development. The more tests there are, the greater the chances of finding something both safe and effective.
However, there is no guarantee that it is even possible to vaccinate against the coronavirus. There are many things we do not yet know about how our immune system responds to the virus and whether it is possible to induce lasting immunity.
Hancock also said the government was “doing everything” to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. But given the time it will take to get one – if that even turns out to be possible – it is clear that countries cannot wait for a vaccine to get them out of their current crises. As Epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, UK said New scientist early April: “I don’t think waiting for a vaccine is worthy of the word ‘strategy’. It’s not a strategy, it’s a hope. “
We have to be realistic about the hopes for a vaccine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Like annual flu shots, an effective coronavirus vaccine could help protect those most at risk from the virus. As with childhood vaccines against measles and other diseases, it can also help protect future generations of covid-19.
But it could take years before you get a vaccine. In the meantime, we will face several waves of infection with measures such as extensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine.
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