17 Jul How close are we to a vaccine for COVID-19?
A look at the different vaccines under development, and where they are in the pipeline
An effective vaccine against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is everyone’s hope for a real return to normal life. More than 100 teams of scientists around the world are working to develop and test a vaccine against the virus SARS-CoV-2 as quickly as possible. They’re employing a huge variety of strategies and technologies, including some that have never been used in an approved vaccine before.
“It’s a very fascinating and kind of impressive effort,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
“It’s absolutely crucial.”
Even in countries that have had a devastating number of deaths from COVID-19, there is nowhere close to a level of “herd immunity” within the population preventing the disease from spreading exponentially if we go back to normal levels of social interaction, she said.
How far are we from the first SARS-CoV-2 vaccine?
Typically, it takes an average of more than 10 years for a vaccine to get from pre-clinical development (including animal testing) through three phases of clinical (human) trials to market registration.
The process has been fast-tracked for COVID-19. The first human vaccine trials began in March, just two months after the virus and disease were identified. And different phases of human trials are being run in an overlapping fashion instead of one at time — for example, Phase 2 might begin just a few weeks after the start of a six-month Phase 1 trial.
Canada has a notably large number of vaccine candidates registered with the World Health Organization — at least seven.
Internationally, as of July 15, 23 vaccine candidates had made it to human trials, with the most advanced at Phase 3.
Multiple vaccines on the horizon?
Most vaccine candidates that make it to preclinical testing never make it to market (about 94 per cent fail, a 2013 study found). But in this case, with so many different vaccines under development, there may still end up being multiple vaccines for the coronavirus, possibly using different strategies, Saxinger predicts.
There are a number of potential advantages if that happens:
- They’d be using different ingredients and manufacturing facilities and wouldn’t be competing for resources — allowing for more vaccine production.
- Different vaccines have different pros and cons. Some vaccines require more doses to be effective than others, while ease of manufacturing, testing and distribution varies.
- Some vaccines may be more suitable for some populations than others, due to factors such as age or genetics.
Stephen Barr is associate professor of microbiology and immunology who is part of a COVID-19 vaccine development team at at Western University in London, Ont. He noted that the “best” vaccine in the end may not be best for everybody. “But the second one might be, for those that don’t respond, right? So it’s always good to have these backup vaccines as well or vaccines that can be used in parallel around the world.”
Lots of Canadian candidates
As mentioned earlier, Canada currently has at least seven vaccine candidates under development, with Canadian involvement in the development of some others. Saxinger said that maximizes the impact of the expertise we have, from work on diseases such as Ebola, SARS and MERS.
Developing and producing vaccines here at home could also give Canada more control over when Canadians can get the vaccine, and who can be prioritized, given that there will likely be huge demand for the vaccine from countries around the world.
“I don’t think we want to rely on others, hoping they will remember us,” said Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of VIDO-Intervac at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, one of the Canadian teams developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The current race for a vaccine underscores why it’s important for countries like Canada to be self-sufficient, he added.
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