How are vaccines developed? And when will a coronavirus vaccine be available?
As COVID-19 continues to sicken and kill thousands of people around the world, politicians, health professionals and the public are wondering how to get out of lockdown and start to return to normal life. But this won’t be simple.
Without a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2- the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 - there will always be a risk that new outbreaks of the disease will emerge.
While rigorous testing, contact tracing and quarantine procedures will help to control the spread COVID-19, the only way to significantly reduce the threat is for enough of the population to become immune to the virus so they cannot pass it on.
Widespread community immunity (often known as ‘herd immunity’) can be achieved either by many people becoming infected - which is extremely risky and costs thousands of lives - or through vaccination. It’s no surprise that many politicians and scientists see a COVID-19 vaccine as the only safe route back to normality.
In this post, take a look at how a coronavirus vaccine will help protect us against COVID-19. We review how scientists are developing vaccines against coronavirus so quickly, what progress has been made so far, and how long it will take before a vaccine is ready for widespread use.
How do you make a vaccine against coronavirus?
Vaccines can be thought of as ‘training programmes’ for the immune system, teaching your immune cells to recognise and destroy invading bacteria and viruses (pathogens) that cause disease.
Most vaccines contain either a small part of a microbe that causes a disease, or a harmless form of the whole pathogen. When the vaccine is injected into your body, your immune system initiates a response without actually making you ill. So, if you go on to encounter the real disease at a later date, you’re protected because your body already knows what it looks like and how to deal with it.
So far, COVID-19 vaccine development has centered around using one particular part of the coronavirus - the spike proteins on the surface - to generate immunity.
Research into vaccines for COVID-19 has progressed very quickly compared to previous immunisations. That’s thanks to both a global research effort backed by governments and public health organisations, but also a result of using new genetic technologies to rapidly identify potential vaccine candidates.
A team of Chinese scientists sequenced the virus’ genetic material and published it on January 12th, kicking off intensive vaccine research and testing all over the world. The first vaccine candidates were ready for pre-clinical testing in animals just weeks later, and a few have already gone into clinical trials in human volunteers.
Some rely on injecting the virus spike proteins into the body, or delivering a harmless weakened form of the entire virus. Others use various techniques to deliver genetic material from the virus into your cells, which then make the spike proteins required to generate immunity.
Further larger trials must show the vaccine offers adequate protection against COVID-19. Then, once a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, it must still conquer the challenges related to scaling up, manufacture and distribution to billions of people all over the world.
The fact that there are so many candidates in development increases the chances that one or more of them will succeed. Rather than being a race with only one winner, this is more like a penalty shootout with a hundred shots at the goal.
Will we be stuck in lockdown until we have a vaccine?
Until a vaccine is widely available, all we can do is monitor the spread of COVID-19 through rigorous monitoring, testing, contact tracing and quarantine or other lockdown restrictions where necessary.