When will we see a coronavirus vaccine?

Progress is being made in the fight against COVID-19.

In more than 100 vaccine trials worldwide, 17 have reached clinical evaluation, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The New York Times says there are 145 vaccine trials underway, with 21 undergoing human trials.

Professor Damian Purcell, an infectious diseases expert at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, told the ABC that having so many candidates is a positive.

“I think we’re looking at probably a faster time frame if everybody shares the information and openly compares the results,” Prof. Purcell said.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) lists two Australian trials, in Perth and Brisbane, as among the better prospects.

“These things are likely to be safe. I think they’re very strong candidates,” Prof. Purcell said.

On 30 March, CEPI representatives laid out a vision for accelerated vaccine development in an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The Guardian reported that this ‘pandemic paradigm’ involved running animal and phase one clinical testing at the same time. Usually, a vaccine is developed in the lab before being tested on animals. If it proves safe, there are human trials, which take place in three phases, “each of which takes longer and involves more people than the previous one”.

The accelerated version scales up production capacity before all safety and efficacy data are in, a financially risky approach, which demands that not-for-profit organisations such as CEPI share extra financial risk with pharmaceutical companies. This is necessary because mass production is critical in a pandemic, when “hundreds of millions if not billions of doses are needed”.

US biotech firm Moderna’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine entered human trials on 16 March, only 10 weeks after the first genetic sequences of the virus were released.

“We’re getting to candidates much more quickly,” says Beate Kampmann, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The step up in technology that we have seen in the last five years has really made a difference.”

At the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a COVID-19 vaccine candidate ‘piggybacks’ on a licensed measles vaccine, which will speed up testing and licensing. That type of vaccine “can already be produced in large quantities”.

The US government’s Operation Warp Speed program aims to name at least five vaccine projects to receive billions of dollars in funding – an unprecedented expenditure – before there’s proof that the vaccines work.

“By winnowing the field in a matter of weeks from a pool of around a dozen companies, the federal government is betting that it can identify the most promising vaccine projects at an early stage, speed along the process of determining which will work and ensure that the winner or winners can be quickly manufactured in huge quantities and distributed across the country,” The New York Times reported.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top epidemiologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hoped to have “a couple of hundred million doses” by the start of 2021.

In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Dr Stephen Hahn couldn’t predict when a vaccine would be available, but he said “we are seeing unprecedented speed for the development of a vaccine”.

Human trials of the Linear study, at the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre in Perth, are underway, with participants feeling no ill effects so far, the ABC reports.

“This trial vaccine is a synthetic form of the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus. These spike proteins around the outside of the virus allow it to invade human cells.

“The intention is then to mount a strong immune response, so that if you are ever infected with COVID-19 your body knows exactly how to deal with it,” said Linear associate medical director Lara Hatchuel.

“This is one of those lifetime career goals, to be able to contribute to such an important and exciting trial that has this global impact,” she said.

The next phase of the trial would see thousands of participants take part across the world.

At the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, a phase three trial is testing to see if the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine, previously developed to protect against tuberculosis, can partly protect against the coronavirus.

WHO head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in June: “The estimate is we may have a vaccine within one year. If accelerated, it could be even less than that, but by a couple of months. That’s what scientists are saying.”

For those ill, unemployed or at risk of contracting the disease, these words might be cold comfort. But at least we know some of the world’s smartest people are stopping at nothing to make sure a vaccine arrives as soon as possible.

Are you closely following research efforts? Do you think a vaccine for coronavirus will be widely available in the next 12 months?

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