The race to develop a vaccine for coronavirus is on. Since its outbreak in December last year, researchers and drug makers have scrambled to develop immunisations by repurposing old antivirals, utilising technology, or actioning new approaches to medicine.
How close are we to developing a vaccine?
How is a vaccine made?
The process of developing a vaccine is long. Though efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine are accelerated, considering the process of developing a vaccine give important insights.
Vaccines are made by weakening, inactivating, or using part of viruses or bacteria so that they cannot replicate. Vaccines expose recipients to the virus to develop an immunity.
Vaccines are tested in a number of stages before they reach wide availability. Scientists must first create potential candidates for vaccines, which will then go through animal testing and large and small clinical trials in people. These stages ensure both the safety of the vaccines and the effectiveness.
How long will this take?
China shared publicly the full RNA sequence of the virus in January. This kickstarted medical research efforts globally.
Melbourne’s Doherty Institute was the first to successfully grow the virus outside of China in late January. This sample has enabled many researchers to begin to understand the virus and develop vaccines.
Many vaccines are currently in preclinical development. This stage precedes clinical trials (testing on humans). The purpose of preclinical development is to establish the safety of a vaccine and determine the safe dose for first-in-man study. Vaccines in preclinical development are anywhere from a few months to a year away from beginning clinical trials.
The University of Queensland (UQ) has been requested to develop a vaccine using new technology. UQ is using its recently developed rapid response technology to develop a new vaccine, which is hoped to be available worldwide in 6 months.
Even if researchers such as UQ are successful in creating a vaccine in the upcoming months, drug manufacturers are unlikely to be able to produce enough vaccines to protect everyone exposed to the virus.
“The vaccine would be distributed to first responders, helping to contain the virus from spreading around the world,” said Head of University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences Professor Paul Young.
Prioritising health officials is based on factors such as who would have the most severe symptoms and who is most likely to spread the virus.
What can we learn from SARS?
It took 20 months for a SARS vaccine to be ready for testing on people during the 2002-2003 outbreak. By then, the virus had been contained using public health measures such as isolating infected people, setting up quarantines and identifying people who had come into contact with those infected.
These steps are already being taken for the current coronavirus outbreak. Though, while these measures have been successful previously, a number of changing factors – such as how quickly this virus spreads and how serious the illness it causes is – can impact the potential success of containment.