All over the globe, research teams are competing in a race against time (and each other) in order to produce an effective vaccine against COVID-19. What are the latest news? Why does it take so long? And has it to be a vaccine in the first place? This article tries to outline the fast-paced developments.
How close are we?
Right now, over 50 companies are working on promising approaches. 2 of them are on the forefront: Moderna from the U.S. and CanSinBIO from China. Their vaccines have been developed far enough to be tested on a human subject group, and they do so since march. But many other companies are pretty close to the testing phase as well.
In most cases, dead coronavirus cells are used as a basis for the future vaccine. Other researchers are trying to plant the typical crown-shaped protein coat on some harmless viruses. There are also fairly unconventional methods, such as the search for an RNA-based vaccine. If it works, the human body itself will be able to produce proteins similar to the surface structure of the coronavirus. This way the body will learn to produce antibodies against its own cells - to easily combat the coronavirus cells in case of infection.
The RNA method attracts wide interest, partially due to its innovative nature. Take for example, the German company CureVac. Donald Trump has allegedly tried to buy exclusive selling rights for this company’s vaccine. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that none of the companies has managed to create an RNA vaccine in the first place (despite all the media hype).
Why does it take so long?
Even if a vaccine would have been proved effective for a small testing group, it would not be the last (or the highest) obstacle. Shortly afterwards, a vaccine has to undergo a rigorous admission procedure. It is tested to detect possible side effects, as well as to find out whether it is really effective on a large scale.
Another burdensome aspect is the following mass production. Fortunately, in this step the economy gives the scientists a hand. Some companies, for example, have announced to produce all the vaccines in bulk - even those which have not been allowed yet - to shorten the time until they can be launched on the market. By doing this, the companies put themselves at risk - after all, they might need to destroy masses of vaccines if the substance will fail the admission procedure.
Until now, no vaccine has been proved effective. So, the European Medicines Agency expects to wait at least a year until the first vaccine goes on sale.
What are the other options?
Most scientists are sure: An effective medication against COVID-19 will be found way quicker than a vaccine. Which is easy to explain: There is no need to develop a new medication. An existing medicine, which has already been proven to treat other viral illnesses, can be taken instead. There have already been small successes with antivirals developed to treat HIV, malaria, rabies or Ebola. Unfortunately, none of them has worked on a greater scale so far.
Another successful approach is the antibody therapy. Antibodies are isolated directly from the blood plasma of COVID-19 survivors. By using this method, five people in a life-threatening condition have been saved in Shenzhen, China. It might sound awesome on paper, but this therapy can not be used for the general population. Because there are way more infected than healed people in most of the countries, there would simply be not enough blood plasma for everyone. Also, the actual effective dosage of the antibodies is still unknown.
Only the future can tell, which one of the three methods will be the most effective. Until then, simple prevention methods can already make a big deal. Also, there is real evidence that the virus slows down in warmer weather conditions. Therefore, we can firmly hope that a healing method will be found until the end of summer.