As some countries start to loosen preventative measures put in place against the spread of coronavirus, the need for a vaccine is becoming glaringly obvious for any hope of returning to some semblance of the lives we had before.
It's an abrupt return to the first half of the 20th century, when cures for infectious diseases, like smallpox and polio, were a kind of worldwide holy grail for scientists and ordinary families alike. The difference today is that an ever more connected planet has allowed the virus to spread at an unrivaled speed — the good news is that the race to find a vaccine is also moving faster than ever.
Until Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh discovered the vaccine for polio 65 years ago this month, the disease had ravaged the planet for more than four decades, infecting some 600,000 people annually. The response to polio wasn't so different from what we're seeing today, with the rolling closures of non-essential public spaces and schools amid flare-ups, as well as the separation of infected individuals from the rest of society. While Salk's polio vaccine took more than seven years of research and development, with technological advancements and global collaboration, scientists today are fixing to have their remedies ready and tested in a matter of months rather than decades.
Since the complete sequence of the novel coronavirus genome was published on January 11 by doctors working in Wuhan, the assumed epicenter of the outbreak, infectious disease experts worldwide have been working in collaboration to crack the code of the virus as quickly as possible. Because COVID-19 shares genetic similarities with other coronaviruses, like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, scientists have already had a headstart working on a vaccines, which may significantly shorten the timespan from having the genetic sequence to having sample vaccines ready to be tested.
Currently, there are more than 70 coronavirus vaccines in various stages of development around the world, according to the World Health Organisation. One biotech firm in the U.S., Moderna, began its first round of vaccine testing on volunteers in March and expects to be ready to enter the next phase of testing before summer.
One of the largest trials currently underway at the University of Oxford has over 500 volunteers set to be tested by mid-May. This could possibly pave the way for a vaccine to be ready for mass production by autumn of next year, significantly less than the original estimate of 12-18 months.
But there is still too little reliable information about COVID-19 for optimism, says Jean-Laurent Casanova, a French infectious disease researcher, who has begun clinical trials to determine the genetic factors that influence the response to the coronavirus. "There are so many unknowns in the immunity response. For example, we don't even know if the antibodies that appear after the infection are protectors (against the virus)," Casanova told Le Monde.
But, as we wait impatiently for life to start back up again, it's important to remember that speed isn't the only virtue we need for our coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk's son, who six decades ago was one of the very first children to be tested with his father's polio vaccine, is now the 75-year-old president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation and a visiting professor of infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Peter Salk told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that he's been encouraged by the massive worldwide collaboration that has kicked in for the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine. But he also But he also said introducing new vaccines to the wider public requires scientific rigor. "We have to go as quickly as we can but we have to go cautiously. We shouldn't introduce a vaccine that came through just a basic clinical trial." Safety matters, and so too does staying power. Or as his father taught us, it's the difference between discovering a vaccine and the vaccine.
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