While social distancing is the best way to slow the spread of Coronavirus and flatten the curve of infections to make sure that hospitals are not overwhelmed, to return to full normalcy, we need to discover, test, and administer a vaccine in large quantities. The good news is that there are currently 35 companies racing to create a vaccine and at least 52 vaccine programs underway.
There are several types of vaccines pharmaceutical companies are trying to produce. One of the most popular methods is developing a messenger RNA-based vaccine. Messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules in these vaccines are used to “instruct human cells to produce therapeutic proteins that trigger an immune response against cancer or infectious diseases” (Burger). This approach is being taken by companies such as CanSino Biologics, Moderna, BioNTech in collaboration with Pfizer, and CureVac. Chinese company CanSino Biologics, as well as Moderna, have started human testing, with the first patient having been vaccinated on March 16th. The results of CanSino Biologics’ trials will be published this month, but “researchers say more extensive tests would best be conducted overseas” and on a larger scale (Chan). Collaborating pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Pfizer are expected to start testing in late April. The German pharmaceutical company, CureVac, aims to start testing individuals in June. They have stated that in the case of emergency, low-dose vaccines would allow them to develop up to 100 million vaccine doses per year.
A second vaccine method is a DNA plasmid vaccine, which Inovio Pharmaceuticals is developing. Human trials are planned for April and one million doses are expected to be produced by the end of the year. A third method is being created by Novavax, which is producing a type of recombinant vaccine that uses the virus’ “proprietary recombinant protein nanoparticle technology platform to generate antigens derived from the coronavirus spike (S) protein” (Taylor). The company hopes to start testing on humans in late spring.
Johnson and Johnson announced that it has a potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that would be available for emergency use at the beginning of next year (Nathan-Kazis). Recently, Johnson and Johnson have also announced that human testing will start in September and vaccine manufacturing will begin immediately so that it will be available if it is proven to be successful.
While these developments give us some hope for the future, there are hurdles in developing a completely new vaccine. Experts believe that expecting a vaccine in a few months, or even by the end of this year, is unrealistic and that we should not expect to see the wide-spread distribution of the novel vaccine before 18 months. Bruce Gellin, the president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, stated that “while there is a push to do things as fast as possible, it’s really important not to take shortcuts”. In order to mass produce the vaccine, researchers need to be 100% certain that the vaccine is safe. Another hurdle specific to this crisis is that the coronavirus vaccine is made from genetic material and a vaccine made from genetic material has never been approved before. Therefore, it will need to be treated as a brand-new vaccine when undergoing inspection, which means it could take much longer to be approved than say, the annual flu vaccine.
The other imminent hurdle is distributing the newly created vaccine to the world in an attempt to immunize millions. There are questions of whether the countries in which the vaccine is produced should immunize their own people first before exporting the vaccine, and which groups should gain access to the vaccine first. The Guardian published a great article on this, which is linked here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/coronavirus-vaccine-when-will-it-be-ready
The promising news is that this crisis leads to unprecedented collaboration between global pharmaceutical companies. In recent weeks, the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have announced that they will “share resources and clinical trial data with governments and each other to help increase testing capacity and develop treatments” (Hodgson). As Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming stated, “the best weapon to fight the pandemic is a joint operation between China and the US, putting aside their political disagreements” because “now the whole world – not just China or the US – is facing a common enemy: Covid-19”.
Burger, Ludwig, and Tilman Blasshoefer. “Germany’s CureVac Says Low-Dose Coronavirus Vaccine Could Allow for Mass Production.” Reuters, 13 Mar. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-germany-vaccine-idUSKBN21036D.
Chan, Minnie. “Why China’s Military Scientists Want to Test Coronavirus Vaccine Abroad.” South China Morning Post, 2 Apr. 2020, www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3077988/chinese-military-scientists-hope-test-coronavirus-vaccine-abroad.
Cohen, Jon. “With Record-Setting Speed, Vaccinemakers Take Their First Shots at the New Coronavirus.” Science, 1 Apr. 2020, www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/record-setting-speed-vaccine-makers-take-their-first-shots-new-coronavirus.
“Coronavirus-Impfung Durch Curevac: „100 Millionen Dosen pro Jahr’ – WELT.” DIE WELT, WELT, 19 Mar. 2020, www.welt.de/wissenschaft/article206647043/Coronavirus-Impfung-durch-Curevac-100-Millionen-Dosen-pro-Jahr.html.
Finley, Dane. “3 Biotechs Are Rapidly Making Coronavirus Vaccine Progress.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 18 Mar. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/moderna-biontech-curevac-made-coronavirus-vaccine-progress-2020-3.
Hodgson, Camilla. “Global Pharma Groups Promise Co-Operation on Coronavirus.” Subscribe to Read | Financial Times, Financial Times, 19 Mar. 2020, www.ft.com/content/5ecf1afe-69ea-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3.
Nathan-Kazis, Josh. “Johnson & Johnson Says Its Coronavirus Vaccine Could Be Ready Early Next Year.” Johnson & Johnson Coronavirus Vaccine Update: Company Says Its Covid-19 Vaccine Could Be Ready Early Next Year – Barron’s, Barrons, 30 Mar. 2020, www.barrons.com/articles/johnson-and-johnson-covid-19-vaccine-emergency-use-human-testing-51585573762.
Nathan-Kazis, Josh. “When Will a Coronavirus Vaccine Be Ready? These 9 Programs Are Making Progress.” Coronavirus Vaccine Update: When Will a Covid-19 Vaccine Be Ready? These Programs Are Making Progress. – Barron’s, Barrons, 30 Mar. 2020, www.barrons.com/articles/coronavirus-vaccine-update-when-will-a-covid-19-vaccine-be-ready-51585587652.
Spinney, Laura. “When Will a Coronavirus Vaccine Be Ready?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Apr. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/when-will-a-coronavirus-vaccine-be-ready.
Taylor, Michelle. “Roundup: The Most Promising COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts.” Lab Equipment, 16 Mar. 2020, www.laboratoryequipment.com/561875-Roundup-The-Most-Promising-COVID-19-Vaccine-Efforts/.