The race for a COVID-19 vaccine is on.
How Vaccines Work
Vaccines protect you from serious, and sometimes deadly, diseases. In the US, most young kids get vaccinated for diseases like measles, polio, and chickenpox. And you know the annual flu shot? That’s technically a vaccine. No vaccine is 100% effective. But the World Health Organization says that common childhood vaccines are effective for 85%-95% of people. And data shows that vaccines have completely eliminated diseases like polio and smallpox that used to kill thousands of people a year.
What exactly does a vaccine do?
When you get sick, your immune system goes into overdrive to fight the infection. As part of this process, you develop “memory cells” that remember what to do if you come across the same germ that originally got you sick. Because the body is cool like that. Vaccines essentially mimic this process without actually making you sick (although you may have minor symptoms like a fever). A vaccine introduces your body to antigens aka tiny amounts of weakened or dead cells that cause a disease. That forces your immune system to respond, meaning you develop memory cells and build up immunity.
Got it. And how are vaccines developed?
Trial and error. It’s not exactly a quick process. First, scientists have to research what antigens might go into the vaccine. Then it goes into animal testing before moving on to human trials, which have several phases to make sure the vaccine is both safe and effective. After that, the FDA has to sign off and then it’s time for mass production, which the FDA can also monitor. More on that in a bit. This entire process typically takes at least 10 years. Yes, you read that right. Mumps reportedly holds the record for vaccine creation. It took four years.
COVID-19 Vaccine: Where Things Stand
This is an all-hands-on-deck situation involving international collaboration and access to new technology. The first COVID-19 vaccine was greenlit for human trials 42 days after it was designed. That’s an industry record. But public health experts say it’ll take at least 12-18 months to get one approved (think: spring/fall 2021). Right now, the WHO says there are more than 70 COVID-19 vaccines in development, including a handful that have started human trials.
Why so many?
There are multiple types of vaccines. And like we said, this all comes down to trial and error. The more that are being tested could mean a better chance that at least one will get approved.
Are there any red flags I should know about?
Some experts warn that there’s no guarantee of being able to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine. Only time will tell. There’s also still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 immunity, and how long a vaccine might protect someone.
So without a vaccine…?
Social distancing is our new normal. States and the federal government are trying to figure out how to reopen the country, getting people back to work and businesses up and running. Some states are already making moves on this front. But without a vaccine or other treatment, reopening will still require Americans to observe measures like social distancing and wearing masks. And even those steps won’t completely stop the spread of the disease, just as even stricter stay-at-home orders also haven’t completely stopped the spread. Meaning people will continue to die from COVID-19.
If a vaccine is successfully developed, there’s a whole new task at hand: how to make sure the likely billions (yes, with a b) of people who need it can actually get it. There are concerns about whether the vaccine supply chain and vaccine manufacturers are equipped to handle such high demand.
Uh oh. Anything else?
Even if we have all the materials, there’s the issue of how to distribute the vaccine around the globe. That’ll require a plan for whether certain countries get priority as well as which groups of people (such as health care workers) get first dibs. Countries might need to figure out where people can get vaccinated (such as a doctor’s office, pharmacy, or clinic). And then this all needs to be clearly communicated to the public. The WHO says it’s working with government leaders to make sure there’s “equitable” vaccine distribution.
Several drugs are being tested as possible COVID-19 treatments. These are different from vaccines that build immunity against the disease. In some cases it might mean patients taking a pill to help treat their symptoms. There are still no FDA-approved drugs to treat or cure COVID-19 yet. But here are some of the ones making headlines:
Remdesivir...an antiviral drug that’s being used in clinical trials with COVID-19 patients. It was developed to treat Ebola and has successfully treated another type of coronavirus, MERS, in monkeys.
Hydroxychloroquine...a drug used to treat malaria and arthritis that’s going through clinical trials on COVID-19 patients. You may recognize the name because in recent weeks President Trump had repeatedly pushed it as a possible treatment for COVID-19. A panel of government experts says there’s “insufficient data” to recommend taking it at this point. The FDA has warned against taking it outside of a hospital or clinical trial because it can cause heart rhythm problems.
Convalescent plasma…plasma is the liquid part of our blood. People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies in their plasma that may help fight the disease. Blood donation organizations are helping coordinate plasma donations, which are being investigated as a possible treatment.
Data shows vaccines save lives. Until we have one, or at least a treatment that can be widely deployed, countries are in the difficult position of weighing how to safely reopen their economies without putting lives at risk.
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