With many people isolating themselves at home in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 (commonly called the coronavirus), cabin fever is already starting to set in, and the question arises: How long will this last? One of the most crucial factors in quelling the outbreak is developing a vaccine, and researchers around the world are racing to do just that. As in all times of crisis, misinformation can spread easily. Here’s what you need to know about coronavirus vaccines, and what to be suspicious of.
A vaccine is a substance that triggers your immune system to produce the antibodies it needs to eliminate a virus. Normally, when you get a viral infection, your immune system reacts to the intruders, sometimes in painful ways — fevers, for example, are the body’s way of trying to incinerate viruses.
If your immune system is encountering a virus for the first time, it needs to “study” it so that it can destroy its molecules effectively. Once it understands what it is dealing with, the immune system can produce antibodies tailored to that particular enemy.
Usually, vaccines contain dead or weakened viral molecules, not strong enough to damage cells but still able to trigger the immune system to develop antibodies.
Companies and institutions in various countries are developing vaccines for the coronavirus. The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recently began a clinical trial, testing an experimental vaccine on human patients for the first time. The vaccine was developed in collaboration with Moderna, a biotech company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In China, CanSino Biologics has received approval from the Chinese government to begin testing its own vaccine.
Moderna’s vaccine uses messenger RNA to give the immune system a genetic blueprint for the defenses it needs. This approach is allegedly quicker to develop than traditional vaccines, with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci telling a House Oversight Committee that “getting it to Phase I in a matter of months is the quickest that anyone has ever done.” This vaccine is still only in Phase I of clinical testing, however, and the process will continue for a while.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains: “Clinical development is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. In Phase II, the clinical study is expanded and vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety.”
For Phase I of the Moderna trial, “study participants will receive two doses of the vaccine via intramuscular injection in the upper arm approximately 28 days apart..” Phase I will likely take a few months, according to Fauci, with Phase II possibly beginning in the summer and Phase III in the fall. The vaccine could hopefully be ready by early 2021.
“Since this is a vaccine,” Fauci said, “you don’t want to give it to normal, healthy people with the possibility that A) it will hurt them and B) that it will not work.”
Fauci emphasized that the process of developing a vaccine that’s safe for widespread use will almost certainly take a year to 18 months, and added that “anyone who thinks they’re going to go more quickly than that, I believe will be cutting corners that would be detrimental.”
As such, be skeptical if you see headlines circulating about how scientists are “weeks away from a vaccine” or something along those lines. These dramatic headlines are great for ensnaring readers, but in a lot of cases, the crux of these articles will actually be about how scientists are weeks away from human testing — not actually deploying a finished vaccine to the world. For the time being, social distancing might be the new normal.
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