Researchers seeking a vaccine for coronavirus carry a daunting responsibility. The longer it takes, the more people will be infected. The virus is also mutating, making their work especially challenging, as they try to hit a moving target.
Nevertheless, this is a field of medical research which is developing exceptionally fast. The international effort to produce a vaccine began almost as soon as scientists from China used the internet to share the DNA sequence of SARS-COV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Since then, teams around the world have come up with at least eighty different types of potential vaccine formulas, using a variety of different approaches.
Although coronavirus is a deadly disease, it only kills a small proportion of the people who contract it. Most patients recover, sometimes without displaying any symptoms. This suggests that in healthy people, the body’s immune system is strong enough to battle and destroy the infection. A vaccine would provide additional ammunition, especially for those whose immunity has been compromised by other health issues.
It normally takes many years to start testing a vaccine on humans yet trials involving volunteers are already underway in both Britain and China.
At Britain’s Oxford University, more than 800 people have signed up to take part in experiments. “Personally I have a high degree of confidence in this vaccine,” says Sarah Gilbert, the professor of vaccinology who is leading the Oxford team. The research project is currently in the second stage of a three stage process.
Professor Gilbert hopes to have vaccinated 500 volunteers by mid-May. “The best-case scenario is that by the autumn of 2020, we have an efficacy result from phase three and the ability to manufacture large amounts of the vaccine. But these best-case timeframes are highly ambitious and subject to change,” Professor Gilbert told the medical journal, The Lancet.
Other scientists in Britain have warned against expecting a quick fix and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said it is unlikely a vaccine will come into use until the end of this year.
In the meantime, the British government is making generous grants to universities, medical organizations and pharmaceutical firms involved in research. Similar initiatives are taking place at institutes in the United States, Australia, India and in other countries.
Things are moving quickly in China, too. In the city of Wuhan – where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported back in December – more than 500 people are taking part in a trial run by a Chinese biotech company, CanSino Bio, in collaboration with China’s Academy of Military Medical Science.
The Wuhan scientists plan to divide their volunteers into three groups, each of which will receive different doses of the vaccine. The objective is to examine its safety, before establishing its efficacy and deciding whether to move forward to stage-three trials.
There are encouraging signs. The Wuhan team says their experimental vaccine has induced a strong immune response in animals. Vets have been able to use vaccines against some types of coronavirus in animals for years.
The Wuhan project is not the only vaccine trial in China. Several other groups of Chinese scientists are conducting tests on human volunteers, and the Chinese are also collaborating with organizations from South Korea, Europe, and the United States.
The Chinese Communist Party often drums up patriotic support by hailing its role in providing healthcare and security for its citizens. It maintains that a “People’s War” – led by the Party – has been successful in tackling COVID-19 within China. According to state media, the city of Wuhan has no coronavirus patients left in its hospitals.
This contrasts with the rhetoric from Donald Trump, who has sought to blame China for the pandemic. “It could have been stopped in China before it started and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it,” Mr Trump told reporters on the White House lawn. His critics claim this was an attempt to deflect from his own poor handling of the COVID-19 situation in the United States, which has the highest death toll from the pandemic in the world.
Nevertheless, China’s international image has been tarnished by allegations of a cover-up. Wuhan’s official death toll was recently revised up by 50 percent, which seemed to vindicate those who believed the Chinese authorities had deliberately understated the number of deaths. The country’s focus has since shifted to other provinces, such as Heilongjiang where coronavirus is still a major threat.
The Chinese government has considerable incentive to plough resources into medical research. Should Chinese scientists emerge as the winner of the race to produce the first effective preventative vaccine it would bring their nation great prestige.
However, manufacturing a vaccine – particularly on an enormous scale to meet global demand – requires extensive work with dangerous pathogens and hundreds of experiments with human volunteers. Some researchers may even seek permission to challenge the human test subjects with doses of the potentially lethal virus – a move which raises considerable ethical issues.
All these challenges make it difficult to predict a date at which one or more vaccines could enter into widespread use, according to Seth Berkley, CEO of the Vaccine Alliance, Gavi.
“It depends what we are talking about here. Are we talking about the first vaccine which is shown to be effective or are we talking about the first one which could actually be put to use in an experimental way, under emergency authorization? Or are we talking about the first licensed vaccine that is prepared in large quantities for the world? In each case the timelines are going to be different,” Mr Berkley told Economist Radio.
While the glory of winning this race might seem important at a geopolitical level, the real value of the research will only be fully apparent when the whole world gets to benefit from the collaborative effort. Teams are sharing complex information about their research with colleagues and collaborators around the world. They need to know that the information they are working with is comprehensive and reliable. That depends on trust.