Why We Shouldn’t Count On A Coronavirus Vaccine

As the coronavirus continues, the race to find a vaccine is well underway. Health secretary Matt Hancock announced that the government was donating £20m to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to fast track and develop a vaccine to counter the virus that has become widespread in China.

CEPI is a Norway-based coalition of health agencies and vaccine makers. They are looking to have a coronavirus vaccine ready within six to eight months. A number of global pharmaceutical companies are developing their own, with similarly ambitious timescales.

But while the flurry of vaccine announcements has been met with enthusiasm, getting an effective coronavirus vaccine out there in the world might not be as easy as it seems.

Creating a vaccine is a slow, arduous process. Vaccines go through multiple stages of development – from discovery to animal trials through to multiple different human trials. That then is followed by all the hoops the vaccine needs to pass through to get regulatory approval and the large scale manufacturing.

It has been known for a vaccine to take a decade or more to get tested and released on the market. An example would be the Ebola vaccine, which was known by the authorities since 1976, yet when it hit Western Africa in 2014, there was still no vaccine.

An experimental vaccine for Ebola wasn’t used in Western Africa until a year into the outbreak when thousands of people in Guinea received a clinical trial version of the vaccine. 

By the time Ebola had been brought under control through public health interventions in the summer of 2016, the disease had already infected 28,000 people. That experimental vaccine was finally certified as fit to use by the World Health Organisation in November 2019.

The coronavirus relies on the spike protein in order to ‘spike’ through cells’ defences and cause the infection. As with Sars and Mers, the vaccine will need to target this spike protein to stop it from entering the cell. The speed at which Chinese authorities uploaded the genome sequence online will mean researchers can get off to a quick start.

In the Sars outbreak, vaccines were never deployed, as by the time scientists had developed a vaccine the outbreak was already under control and drug firms were no longer willing to manufacturer the vaccine. Once there was little in the way of profit to be made, there was little interest in developing a vaccine.

By the time a vaccine goes through the regulatory process, the virus may have already waned, as happened with Sars.

With the length of time that it takes to produce a vaccine, it’s almost certain that it will not be used to control this current outbreak. What it might do is help control future outbreaks. The principles of doing the research and what you find out along the way can be applied to future projects.

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