The World Health Organization said this week that it may be 18 months before a coronavirus vaccine is publicly available.
Let’s explore why, even with global efforts, it could take so long.
China publicly shared the complete RNA sequence of the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2 instead of COVID-19, which refers to the disease itself, in the first half of January.
This boosted efforts to develop vaccines worldwide, including at the University of Queensland and institutions in the United States and Europe.
At the end of January, the virus was successfully cultivated outside of China for the first time, by the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, a critical step. For the first time, researchers from other countries had access to a live sample of the virus.
Using this sample, researchers at the CSIRO High Containment Center (the Australian Animal Health Laboratory) in Geelong, could begin to understand the characteristics of the virus, another crucial step in the global effort to develop a vaccine.
Historically, vaccines have taken two to five years to develop. But with a global effort and learning from previous efforts to develop coronavirus vaccines, researchers could develop a vaccine in a much shorter time.
HERE WHY WE NEED TO WORK TOGETHER
No institution has the capacity or facilities to develop a vaccine by itself. There are also more stages in the process that many people appreciate.
First, we must understand the characteristics and behavior of the virus in the host (human). To do this, we must first develop an animal model.
Next, we must demonstrate that the potential vaccines are safe and can activate the correct parts of the body’s immunity, without causing damage. Then we can start preclinical tests on animals of possible vaccines, using the animal model.
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Vaccines that successfully pass preclinical tests can be used by other institutions with the ability to perform human trials.
Where they will take place, and by whom, has not yet been decided. In general, it is ideal to test such vaccines in the context of the current outbreak.
Finally, if a vaccine is found to be safe and effective, you must approve the necessary regulatory approvals. And a cost-effective way to make the vaccine must also be in place before the final vaccine is ready for delivery.
Each of these steps in the line of vaccine development faces potential challenges.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WE FACE
The International Coalition for innovations in preparation for epidemics has involved our team in those first two steps: determining the characteristics of the current virus, then preclinical testing of possible vaccines.
While the Doherty Institute in Melbourne and others have been instrumental in isolating the new coronavirus, the next step for us is to grow large quantities so that our scientists have enough to work with. This involves cultivating the virus in the laboratory (encouraging it to grow) in especially safe and sterile conditions.
The next challenge we face is to develop and validate the appropriate biological model for the virus. This will be an animal model that will give us clues about how the coronavirus could behave in humans.
Our previous work with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has given us a good basis to build.
SARS is another member of the coronavirus family that spread during 2002-03. Our scientists developed a biological model for SARS, using ferrets, at work to identify the original host of the virus: bats.
The SARS and the new SARS-CoV-2 share approximately 80-90% of their genetic code. Therefore, our experience with SARS means that we are optimistic that our existing ferret model can be used as a starting point to work on the new coronavirus.
We will also explore other biological models to provide stronger data and as a contingency.
WHAT GOOD WILL A VACCINE BE IF THE VIRUS MUTA?
There is also the great possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate.
Being an animal virus, it is likely that it has already mutated as it adapts, first to another animal and then jumping from an animal to humans.
Initially this was without transmission between people, but now it has taken the significant step of a sustained transmission from person to person.
As the virus continues to infect people, it is going through a kind of stabilization, which is part of the mutation process.
This mutation process may even vary in different parts of the world, for several reasons.
This includes population density, which influences the number of infected people and how many opportunities the virus has to mutate. Previous exposure to other coronaviruses may also influence the population’s susceptibility to infection, which may result in the appearance of variant strains, much like seasonal flu.
Therefore, it is crucial that we continue to work with one of the latest versions of the virus to give the vaccine the best chance of being effective.
All this work must be done under strict quality and safety conditions, to ensure that it complies with global legislative requirements and to ensure that staff and the community in general are safe.
OTHER CHALLENGES FORWARD
Another challenge is to make virus proteins necessary to develop possible vaccines. These proteins are specially designed to elicit an immune response when administered, which allows a person’s immune system to protect against future infections.
Fortunately, recent advances in the understanding of viral proteins, their structure and functions, have allowed this work to progress throughout the world at considerable speed.
Developing a vaccine is a huge task and is not something that can happen overnight. But if things go as planned, it will be much faster than we have seen before.
Many lessons were learned during the SARS outbreak. And the knowledge that the global scientific community acquired in trying to develop a vaccine against SARS has given us an advantage to develop one for this virus.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation and was reproduced with permission.