A Coronavirus/Covid-19 vaccine could take 3 years to make, high-ranking vaccine expert says

A Coronavirus/Covid-19 vaccine could take three years to make, according to a high-ranking vaccine expert at a global pharmaceutical company who walked me through the challenge. Below, I summarize my discussion with them.

Let’s start with other crises, and how the effort to create a vaccine went.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa happened in 2014-16, after multiple localized outbreaks in prior years prompted research on the virus. Even with this head start, vaccine was not available for clinical testing until 2016, and it was only licensed in 2019/2020 — that’s a good five years later. Pre-licensure use of the vaccine (meaning, before the vaccine is officially approved) did stop the recent Congo epidemic. The capacity to make this vaccine is limited.

Compared to Ebola, SARS-CoV-2 (aka Covid-19, or colloquially “the Coronavirus”) has caused more damage to powerful countries, and because it is a respiratory virus it has become a pandemic. On the one hand, because it has infected so many powerful countries, there is a strong sense of urgency from those countries to do something about it. On the other hand, the amount of vaccine needed to impact this epidemic is staggering, especially if it requires more than one dose to become immune. For example, the Prevnar 13 pneumonia vaccine for infants is four doses. If you get a pneumonia vaccine at age 65, you’ll get two doses. And the newest HPV vaccine requires 3 doses. So the number of doses utlimately needed maybe be multiple times the number of people needing vaccination.

Moreover, vaccines for respiratory RNA viruses are particularly tricky because some candidates have made the disease worse (e.g., RSV), and others have lower than ideal efficacy due to antigenic drift (i.e., the virus mutates, like the flu does every year, so the previous vaccine provides less than full immunity to the newly-changed virus). Also, the target population (the elderly) doesn’t have a great immune system. Vaccines tend to work less well on the elderly, so protecting that population as a whole will require herd immunity — making a significant number of the elderly immune to the virus at the same time — hence the need for massive amounts of vaccine, because they may either need multiple vaccinations, or larger individual doses than younger people. Seniors, and people with asthma (like me), for example, get a stronger dose of the flu vaccine that contains four times the normal amount of antigen. Thus, more antigen needs to be produced to meet those populations’ unique needs.

There are major gaps in knowledge that challenge vaccine development:

  1. Do people who recover from the Coronavirus develop immunity from it? If so, what is the nature of the immunity and how long does the immunity last?
  2. Do people who recover continue to shed virus? If so, why aren’t they sick?
  3. What is the immune response that is needed to stop or attenuate the disease?
  4. Will the virus mutate like flu, requiring annual vaccination and a new vaccine be created every year.

The vaccine expert believes that the companies that have chosen to create big splashes around their vaccine programs are irresponsible and unrealistic. Even with the most intensive approach, the studies can be done in two years, assuming we have a general correlate of protection, a way of measuring that someone is now immune – i.e., being able to measure anti-Covid-19 antibodies and showing that these antibodies are protective). But scale up of manufacture will take a longer time.

The vaccine expert tells me that the most likely date for availability of vaccine for frontline workers is three years at the earliest.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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