As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads, and social distancing increases, knowing what to do can be hard. But the science surrounding the disease is developing fast, and that’s at least one reason to hope.
Despite the xenophobic reactions of the current administration, and President Donald Trump’s misstatements and empty promises on the topic, an inspiring global collaboration is working to produce a safe and effective vaccine for coronavirus infection in record time.
Monday marked the delivery of the first vaccine test, administered in Seattle.
“We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something,” said Jennifer Haller in an interview with the Associated Press, before receiving the first dose of the trial vaccine.
Once a vaccine is approved, it will not only prevent healthy individuals from developing the disease, but it will also protect our society at large, including those who are immune-compromised or in other high-risk groups.
The Power of Vaccines
Usually when flu season hits, enough people have the antibodies in their immune systems—from the vaccine and previous bouts with the flu—to fight off the virus. When enough people in a population have this immunity, it protects those who do not have the immunity from getting sick. This concept is called herd immunity. The trouble with the coronavirus is that it’s a brand-new virus. No one has encountered it before, so no one’s immune system has the antibodies to fight it off.
Thankfully, we have decades of science in this area on our side, which has produced a shortcut for developing herd immunity: vaccines. By jumpstarting the production of antibodies to protect against diseases such as measles and the flu, vaccines save lives and prevent diseases from spreading. Between 2010 and 2015, vaccines prevented the deaths of 10 million to 15 million people, according to the World Health Organization, not to mention the millions more who were prevented from suffering various illnesses.
“Vaccines give us a way to protect ourselves individually, but they also give us a way to create a safer world,” wrote Perri Klass, a professor of pediatrics at New York University, in The New York Times. “People have lost that sense of awe and gratitude for both the individual safety that vaccines represent, and also for the glorious communal project of collectively wiping out a source of pain and disability and death.”
Times like these—as the COVID-19 pandemic rages silently through country after country, with no end in sight—show us just how important and necessary vaccinations are.
Tests on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines rely on healthy volunteers. A vaccine for coronavirus isn’t going to be developed fast enough to stop the current pandemic—it’s already here. But as climate change promises to worsen the risk and spread of deadly diseases, helping develop novel vaccines is the best way to proactively protect people if the disease returns, and to prevent future outbreaks.
Developing a new vaccine typically takes upward of 15 to 20 years. “That would not be acceptable here,” said Mark Feinberg, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in an interview with Stat News. Feinberg helped develop the vaccine for Ebola back in 2015. Since it, too, was developed in the middle of a health crisis, the World Health Organization and the government of Guinea stepped up to lead the Ebola vaccine trial, which proved 100% effective at preventing the infection, and has since been administered to nearly 250,000 people, saving countless lives.
The urgency of COVID-19 is encouraging creative approaches and fast-tracking efforts to develop a vaccine faster than the world has ever seen. For example, researchers have decided to forego animal testing. This move is controversial, but many experts, including Feinberg, say the decision is both prudent and necessary in this case. Instead of the decade or two normally required, we could have a vaccine for the disease in 12 to 18 months, according to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
That is possible because of a combination of scientific advances and international cooperation. After this new coronavirus first appeared in China in December 2019, work on a vaccine started almost immediately. “The Chinese didn’t have to send us the virus; they just published the sequence on a public database,” Fauci said in his March 12 testimony to Congress.
Chinese researchers made the genetic sequence available to researchers all over the world. In only a matter of weeks, more than 30 different vaccine efforts are in the works, as compiled by Wired. Researchers in China are collaborating with teams around the globe. A Danish company is leading a consortium of European countries. A company in the U.S. is teaming up with researchers in Italy. Efforts are ramping up in Britain, Israel, Australia, Canada, and India, too. Development of this vaccine is truly a global effort.
One biotech company based in Boston was able to develop a vaccine ready for testing in a matter of weeks. “Going from not even knowing that this virus was out there … to have any vaccine” in testing in about two months is unprecedented, said Lisa Jackson in an interview with the AP. Jackson is leading the vaccine tests in Seattle. The Phase I trials—the first of three stages of testing a vaccine undergoes prior to release—began on Monday.
“That’s record time to get it tested,” Fauci says. But, he clarifies, starting to test a vaccine is not the same as having it ready to give to the masses. “It’s going to take a year to a year and a half to really know if it works.”
Still, that is far less time than the usual aforementioned 15-plus years required for a new vaccine.
The vaccine contender developed in Boston is called mRNA-1273, and it tells the body’s immune system to produce proteins designed to fit with specific, spikey proteins on the surface of the new coronavirus. That way, if the person does encounter an actual coronavirus, their body will already have the antibodies to eliminate it.
The clinical trial is enrolling now, on a rolling basis. Three volunteers have received the test vaccine so far, and the team needs the help of healthy volunteers ages 18 to 55 in the Seattle area to complete the trial. It’s one more way that healthy folks can step up in this challenging time.
“When the COVID vaccine comes, we will need to cooperate and think collectively and deploy it—as we should do with the flu vaccine—not only to save our individual selves, but to make a safer world,” Klass wrote in The Times.
The study will include 45 participants split into three groups. Each group will get a different dose of the vaccine, and a second dose of the same amount 28 days later. The study will follow up with participants nine times over the next year to see whether they have any side effects, such swelling or redness where the shot was given, mild fever, headache, or feeling tired. Such side effects from vaccines are generally mild and short-term; they are the result of the immune system building up protection against the disease. The researchers will also keep an eye on whether the vaccine causes people to develop a more severe version of COVID-19. Later trials will determine the effectiveness of the immune response.
Acknowledging the time and energy that volunteers will be committing, the study will provide a $1,100 stipend and cover travel costs. Enrolling in a vaccine trial is a small step, yes, but one that will bring us another step closer to building a healthier, stronger society and preventing another coronavirus pandemic.
Breanna Draxler is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.