The COVID-19 Vaccine, will it be ready in the next few months ?

It has been over several months now and the SARS CoV-2 has been ravaging through the world population. USA, Italy, Iran and UK are struggling to manage the situation having underestimated the impact the virus would have on their people, while other nations such as India appears to have managed the situation quite well so far by implementing a complete lockdown. USA probably should have done the same, but they have wrongly assumed that complete lockdown would negatively impact the economy. Failing clearly to realise that the impact that they will now face due to the high number of deaths and healthcare system collapse will be far greater than that due to the lockdown. There can be no economy if there are no people a country with a sensitive population should have realised that. India too will lose a lot of lives, but they won’t be lost due to the virus, they will be due to the lockdown itself. Yes, it is sad indeed. But it was a necessary sacrifice for which the country will forever mourn. If it were not for this, millions would have been hospitalised, the healthcare system would have crashed, and the resulting deaths and devastation of humanity would have been far worse than what we now see before us on our screens happening in countries like Italy and UK and in states such as New York where bodies are stuffed and stored in refrigerator trucks. If developed countries were this ill prepared for such an event, I think it is clear then why such dramatic action was needed to be taken by a country such as India.  An important lesson there by the way for the wise leaders of all countries as to how we should be prepared for the next outbreak that is sure to come.

This devastation has pushed leaders and government institutes to partner up with private companies to fast track the development of a vaccine against the virus. With increasing reports of vaccines development moving ahead I wonder can it really be sped up to an extent where the current situation can be salvaged?

The short answer would be no, despite what the media might make it sound.

The development of a vaccine for starters is a tricky process, firstly we need to identify a host in which this virus can be grown or cultured to mass produce it. If not a selected protein of the virus is identified and mass-produced using techniques of biotechnology. Growing virus in a lab is an expensive and tedious process unlike growing bacterial cultures which can be done easily. The influenza vaccine for example is cultured in eggs which is why it is an expensive vaccine. Once the virus is cultured it can be inactivated and injected into an individual or subjected to identity antibodies formed or not of if the disease develops. In another situation the virus can be injected into an intermediate host that would produce the antibodies for us which can then be collected and injected into a human. This would not help prevent the disease but rather treat a disease person. All of this can also be done with a single isolated viral protein also.

The steps which I have described look so simple here as you read it. But the first step itself, the processes of culturing the virus in the lab will take months to be made efficient if at all successful! This is because bacteria are much more flexible in what environment they grown and about their needs. Viruses are more like spoiled kids, that have specific needs, every virus will have a specific type of animal or cell that it will prefer to grow in. Many of them will only grow in humans and no other animal unless either the animal or the virus is genetically modified to do so. But again, this must be done in a manner to ensure the virus does not lose its important features necessary for the vaccine or immunity development. 

Secondly, any virus needs a host no matter what for replication. Unlike, bacteria which replicate and survive on their own and have a host of cellular machinery for consumption of nutrients, energy generation and replication, a virus only has a strand of genetic material. This genetic material needs to be injected into another normal cell which will do the replication for it increasing the number of the viruses we have.

Once this method is standardised and made easy if at all that is achieved, the information will be conveyed across the world. Scientists in other parts of the world better equipped to carry on the next steps will then take up the challenge of the next stages of the vaccine development.

Currently due to the difficulties of rapidly cultivating the virus scientists have taken an alternative and newer method of vaccine development. This method involves making use of mRNA of the viral proteins. mRNA is a type of genetic material that a cell uses to call in certain amino acids to build a viral protein and thus the virus itself. This mRNA can also be artificially manufactured easily on a large scale and injected into a human to for development of antibodies against it. Again, this is not as easy as it would appear and must undergo numerous steps of testing.

Once the vaccine is ready in hand it must be tested on a broad group of humans for its safety as well as its efficacy. It needs to be ensured that the vaccine does not cause any reaction, to induce the disease itself as in the case of live vaccines. It also must be ensured that the vaccine can protect a large group of people among those who have received the vaccine and if enough antibody titre is produced. We need to check if a booster dose is required or if the immunity would be permanent.

At the end of this process it must be seen if the technology used in the development of this vaccine is scalable for mass production and to suffice the large volume of need globally.

Vaccine development just like drug development is a complicated time-consuming process. No matter how much we try to expedite the process we cannot take all the shortcuts possible only to end up killing those we wanted to save from a disease with a vaccine against the disease!

Trump can demand all he wants for a vaccine to be ready by November, that’s when the US elections are. But there is no way it will be ready before 12 to 18 months in time at the least.

For Further reading:

  1. List of candidate vaccines/trials ongoing for COVID-19: https://www.who.int/blueprint/priority-diseases/key-action/novel-coronavirus-landscape-ncov.pdf?ua=1
  2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.00594/full
  3. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2005630

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