Medical teams and researchers around the world are racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 which has sickened more than 127,000, but health experts say a novel coronavirus vaccine is still 12 to 24 months away.
David Kelvin, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University, just received a $1-million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to help examine the outbreak, specifically relating to his work on evaluating patients diagnosed with the virus.
He said a realistic target for a vaccine would be in the 18-month range. The WHO has also said a vaccine is at least 18 months away.
“It might happen sooner but I think that’s unrealistic,” Kelvin told Global News. “18 months to two years would be really fantastic if we achieved that target.”
Kelvin said vaccines traditionally take years to develop, but there’s been one advantage with COVID-19 — the structure and genome of the virus is very similar to the SARS coronavirus. This has allowed scientists to draw on the research from early SARS vaccine candidates.
Kelvin’s said his colleague, Chris Richardson, is currently working on a vaccine that places a SARS protein inside the measles vaccine. Testing is now underway at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The first phase of testing is in animal models and those models allow us to determine whether or not that vaccine allows for protection against infection with COVID 19,” he said.
Steven Hoffman, the director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, said the best estimates indicate a vaccine is still another year away from being fully deployed.
Canada should be preparing for a scenario where there is no vaccine in the short or medium term, he said, noting that in 17 years a vaccine for SARS was never fully developed.
“There’s extraordinary resources, scientific attention and focus on trying to get a vaccine for this strain of coronavirus,” said Steven Hoffman. “We should be doing everything we can to give science the best chance it has at developing something as quickly as possible.”
Canada has at least 135 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is self-isolating after his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, developed flu-like symptoms and got tested for the new coronavirus.
In order for a vaccine to be used widely, it needs to do two things, according to Kelvin.
First, it has to create an “immune response” where the body produces antibodies that can fight against the specific virus. And, second, it has to be safe for the person receiving the vaccine, preventing them from being sick rather than harming them in some way.
“When the virus infects you, what happens is you go through the initial stages of not feeling well, fever, and then some people develop pneumonia. If you recover, what happens is your immune system is now creating a response to the virus,” Kelvin said. “Everybody who survives from the virus has a built-in memory later on.
“The vaccine creates the memory situation without being sick.”
Around the world, roughly 20 coronavirus vaccine candidates are being developed by research institutes and drugmakers including America’s Johnson & Johnson and France’s Sanofi SA.
In China, more than 80 clinical trials are underway according to the World Health Organization as medical researchers work to evaluate everything from HIV drugs to stem cells and even traditional medicines to treat COVID-19.
Two pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. are getting close to human testing.
Biotechnology company Moderna Inc — working with the U.S.-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) — has announced plans to start a trial of a vaccine candidate on 45 people in Seattle this month. Testing on animals will proceed simultaneously with human trials, the NIH told Reuters.
Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc., an immunotherapy company, is working with a company in China to develop a vaccine and expects to start human clinical trials in 30 U.S. volunteers in April.
However, some experts are concerned that accelerated testing doesn’t adequately evaluate harm to humans. Some studies have shown that coronavirus vaccines carry the risk of what is known as “vaccine enhancement” where it could end up worsening the infection in some patients rather than preventing it.
“There are some people who believe that if you had created a vaccine that was really similar to a previous vaccine that went through the system, then you could eliminate those initial steps,” said Kelvin.
“I’m not sure that’s the wisest route to go.”
–With files from Reuters