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Infectious Diseases

How Close Are We to a Coronavirus Vaccine?

Posted on 16 March 2020

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With COVID-19 now a global pandemic, researchers across the world are racing to develop effective antiviral treatments. Yet prevention is better than a cure, especially when it comes to infectious diseases, and development of a vaccine is underway by dozens of companies and institutions.

These efforts have been accelerated by the sequencing of the virus’s genetic material in China. This allowed researchers around the world to study SARS-Cov-2 to inform vaccine and drug development. Progress has also been boosted by the repurposing of shelved vaccines. Both the SARS and MERS epidemics were caused by coronaviruses, but development of their vaccines was halted when the outbreaks were contained.

Moderna Therapuetics

Moderna, a Boston-based biotech company, has developed a vaccine that will be trialled in 45 volunteers, beginning today. They use a relatively new approach: instead of viral components or whole viruses rendered harmless, the vaccine contains messenger RNA (mRNA) – a molecule usually produced from DNA that instructs cells to make proteins. In this case, the mRNA encodes viral proteins, which are then produced by immune cells in the lymph node. Other immune cells recognise these proteins, triggering an immune response and granting immune memory to the recipient.

If the vaccine is approved, this would make it the first licensed mRNA vaccine in the world.


Another biotech company, Novavax, is assessing multiple vaccine candidates in animals, with clinical trials planned in late Spring. The vaccines are derived from the coronavirus spike protein, the structure used by the virus to invade human cells.

Our previous experience working with other coronaviruses, including both MERS and SARS, allowed us to mobilise quickly against COVID-19 and successfully complete the critical preliminary steps to engineer viable vaccine candidates. […] We are now well-positioned to advance the COVID-19 vaccine candidate to Phase I clinical testing in May or June

Stanley C. Erck, President and Chief Executive Officer of Novavax

Chinese Institutes

8 institutes in China are working on developing vaccines against Sars-Cov-2, using five different approaches. Some of these vaccines should enter clinical trials in April.

Our different approaches [to vaccines] are steadily advancing and [we are] following national laws and regulations [in our development]. According to our estimates, we are hopeful that in April some of the vaccines [that are being developed] will enter clinical research or they would be of use in emergency situations.

Zheng Zhongwei, director of the National Health Commission’s Science and Technology Development Center

Under national law, these vaccines could be deployed for urgent use under specific conditions, before their safety has been fully confirmed.

How Long Will it Take?

While vaccines are beginning to reach clinical trial, widespread immunisation may still be a long way off. Once a vaccine has been tested in a small group of a few dozen volunteers, trials will progress to hundreds and then thousands of participants, with safety and effectiveness closely monitored at each stage. Many candidate vaccines will not survive, proving either ineffective or unsafe.

Regulators must be satisfied with the safety of a vaccine before it can be approved. This process can be faster for vaccines similar to those that have already been approved, such as the annual flu vaccine. Unfortunately, this is not the case for coronavirus vaccines, as many of the approaches taken are untested. Consequently, 18 months would be considered an extremely fast development time.

Once a vaccine is approved, scaling up production to supply a global vaccination campaign becomes the next major challenge. These vaccines then have to be distributed to those who need them, a task that many countries lack the healthcare infrastructure to carry out.

It is therefore unlikely that we will have a vaccine before the pandemic has mostly run its course. Nevertheless, continued vaccine development is essential, not only to protect against the current outbreak, but also against future epidemics. This coronavirus outbreak was not the first, nor will it be the last, and any vaccines developed now will greatly accelerate the response to future epidemics. Indeed, had vaccines for SARS and MERS not been abandoned, we might already have an approved vaccine for COVID-19, saving countless lives.

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    When will a coronavirus vaccine be ready?:

    COVID-19 Vaccine Shipped, and Drug Trials Start:

    Government official: Coronavirus vaccine trial starts Monday:

    Novavax Advances Development of Novel COVID-19 Vaccine:

    Chinese coronavirus vaccine could be ready for trials next month:

    Progress against coronavirus in China as new cases wane in epidemic hot zone:

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