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The coronavirus vaccine timeline: The end in sight?

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As the global confirmed COVID-19 cases count passes 10 million and cases in Washington state continue to rise, uncertainty of the future plagues us all. How long until things can be normal again?

Currently, 16 vaccines for COVID-19 are being tested in the clinical phases, with the most advanced (in stages 2 or 3 of testing) being the non-replicating viral vector vaccines developed in the UK and China, and the RNA vaccine made by Moderna Inc, being tested in Seattle.

According to an early May webinar session by Dr. Deborah Fuller, a professor of microbiology and researcher in epidemiology at the UW, the testing and manufacturing processes of a normal vaccine would typically take more than five years before the vaccine would be available to the public. Other experts in the field, such as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, are cautiously hoping for a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2020.

“The concern is that, for most people who aren’t intimately involved with vaccine development, that can sound really scary,” Dr. Kolina Koltai, a UW postdoctoral fellow and researcher of health information at the Center for an Informed Public, said. “I think you’re also going to see people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a vaccine skeptic that might be a little hesitant to take the vaccine right away.”

Can a five-year vaccine development timeline be compressed into a matter of months?

“The main reason is because many of these vaccine platforms were already in pre-clinical development for related vaccines like MERS at the time of the outbreak,” Fuller said. “They could very quickly just swap out the sequence for SARS-CoV-2 and get their vaccines into phase one clinical trials.”

Due to the widespread impact of the virus on economies worldwide, more resources are also being invested into the large-scale production necessary to move onto future steps of clinical vaccine trials.

“A lot of that is driven by the finances,” Fuller said. “It [the vaccine] will still go through all the safety testing required. It’s just they’re accelerating that and moving things a lot quicker forward, and actually taking a little risk financially.”

Even with this compressed process, experts have expressed doubts over whether a vaccine that would traditionally take five years can actually be created in the 12- to 18-month schedule. Regardless, Fuller and Koltai both assured that any approved vaccine will be safe for the public and free of side effects.

“Given the long-standing history of vaccine safety and their rigor, and all the extra attention in making sure the vaccine is safe,” Koltai said. “I’m gonna say that the vaccine is going to be safe.”

How do vaccines work, and why do we need them?

Vaccines introduce a specific antigen molecule — a foreign body that instigates the immune response — to the body so the immune system can “remember” a pathogen’s unique antigen, increasing the immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off that particular disease. 

Once our immune system recognizes and eliminates these antigens after the harmless “practice” from a vaccine, long-lasting memory cells that remember the antigen’s appearance remain in our bodies and are able to quickly divide into huge numbers of effective immune cells. These can effectively combat the pathogen if it is ever encountered again; they are what grant long-term immunity to a disease once a person has been exposed to an antigen. 

According to Fuller, the development of vaccines for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, focuses on the “spike protein” antigen that bonds with human cells to infect them. If a vaccine could successfully cause the immune system to produce antibodies to block the section of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein from binding to human cells, then the virus wouldn’t be able to infect human cells. 

Fuller emphasized the importance of the mass production and distribution of the vaccine, as well as the struggles that will likely come with getting enough people vaccinated to limit the spread of the virus.

“The launch of that vaccine is going to be absolutely critical,” Koltai said. “You want to minimize mistakes and miscommunication when that vaccine becomes available to facilitate the greatest amount of trust in that vaccine. If they mess up the launch of this, it’s going to take so much work to rectify the lost trust.”

Scientists and researchers continue to race against the virus in the development of a vaccine to end the pandemic and experts urge the public to stay vigilant to prevent further spread of the virus as plans to reopen the state and universities roll forward. It can be easy to get lax as a community about minimizing risks, especially as the weather gets nicer and restrictions are lifted, but it’s vital that we continue to be smart about our choices. 

Reach reporter Alvin Luk at Twitter: @AlvinLuk5

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