When will we have a COVID-19 vaccine?

Medically reviewed words Claire Chamberlain, Dr Roger Henderson
Photo credit: Boston Globe - Getty Images

From Netdoctor

The first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in humans has shown promising results. Moderna, a US company, announced that the jab appeared to be safe and to provoke an immune response to COVID-19 – but how far away are we from a vaccine becoming available for widespread use?

Vaccines are usually developed after years of research and trials, so to create one in under a year would be a huge scientific feat. Nonetheless, this is what scientists across the globe are hoping to do – and with good reason.

With COVID-19 (caused by the virus officially known as SARS-CoV-2) now responsible for more than 319,000 deaths worldwide (more than 32,000 of which are in the UK), the race is on to develop a viable vaccine, in the hope that lockdowns could be lifted safely and social distancing measures eased.

But just how would a coronavirus vaccine help… and how soon is it likely to happen?

How do vaccines work?

A vaccine works by stimulating a person’s immune system to create antibodies that will fight a particular disease, as if they’d actually contracted it.

Developing a vaccine is a balancing act: it must create enough of a response for the body to produce the antibodies, but not so much that the immune system goes into overdrive and creates unwanted side effects.

Once a vaccine has created antibodies, these will be able to fight a disease should the person ever come into contact with it for real.

For a vaccine to be approved, it must be deemed safe for everyone to use, including children and the elderly.

What is herd immunity?

If enough people within a population are protected by a particular disease through vaccination, it stops the disease from being able to circulate within that community. This is called ‘herd immunity’, and it helps to protect those who are unable to have the vaccine, including babies who are too young to be vaccinated and those with serious health conditions.

Herd immunity only works if the majority of people within a community are vaccinated.

Once a vaccine is developed for SARS-CoV-2, and if enough people are able to be vaccinated, the spread of the virus would likely slow as herd immunity began to have an impact.

How is a coronavirus vaccine being developed?

Vaccines can be developed in several ways. These include whole virus vaccines (which involve giving someone a weak or dead form of the virus that causes the disease) and recombinant vaccines (which do not contain live pathogens).

According to BBC health and science correspondent James Gallagher, there are currently approximately 80 groups around the world, including some major pharmaceutical companies, working to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, including a team of scientists at Oxford University, who have now begun human trials.

Trials at Oxford University

The new vaccine being tested at Oxford University, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, has been created from a virus (ChAdOx1) that’s a weakened version of a common cold. It’s infectious to chimpanzees, but has been genetically modified so that it cannot develop in humans.

Small sections of SARS-CoV-2 have been added to this harmless virus, in an attempt to create a safe virus that looks like the novel coronavirus.

Scientists will now see whether vaccinating with ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 will create enough of an immune response to help stop SARS-CoV-2 entering human cells.

First human-tested vaccine shows promising results

The first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in people has shown promising results in a Phase 1 trial – albeit, a small trial. Eight people – all healthy volunteers between 18 and 55 – each received two doses of the experimental vaccine, which appeared to be safe and provoke strong immune responses, the manufacturing company, Moderna, announced.

Moderna’s technology, involving genetic material called mRNA, is relatively new. Now, the preliminary findings are set to be repeated in hundreds and then thousands of people to test if the vaccine can work on a wider scale. Moderna produced the vaccine in collaboration with America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed by immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci.

If these trials are successful, the vaccine could become available by the end of the year or early 2021, said Dr Tal Aks, the company’s chief medical officer.

Coronavirus vaccine: how far away is it?

While many scientific teams are working around the clock to develop vaccines, it’s important to remember that a large proportion of vaccines are shown to be unpromising, even before they reach clinical trials. Of those that do reach the clinical trials stage, a high number do not work.

Even if trials of one (or some) of the various coronavirus vaccines being developed go well, it can still take up to 18 months for a potential vaccine to become available for public use.

However, scientists at Oxford University are confident they could have their vaccine ready sooner that this – in just four months’ time, in fact – with lead researcher Professor Sarah Gilbert stating in an interview with The Times that she is 80 per cent certain it will be effective.

Current preventative measures

While a coronavirus vaccine is still in development, it’s important to follow Government advice to help prevent to spread of COVID-19. This includes:

  • Strictly adhering to social distancing regulations (staying 2m away from others outside of your household)
  • Frequently washing your hands with soap and hot water, for at least 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday)
  • Avoiding touching your face
  • Using hand sanitiser regularly if you need to go out and about
  • Going out for exercise only, but maintaining the two-metre social distancing rule
  • Staying home if you develop a cough, flu-like symptoms or high temperature.

Last updated: 19-05-2020

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