Will a coronavirus vaccine bring normalcy? Experts say it depends on priorities

Click to play video: 'The international race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine'
The international race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine
WATCH: Researchers and health officials around the world are racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine to beat the pandemic – Apr 5, 2020

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that life won’t return to normal until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is available — something experts have said could be at least 18 months away.

But those experts also noted that getting back to our way of life depends on how that vaccine is rolled out across the country and around the world.

The good news, according to Western University health sciences professor Maxwell Smith, is that countries now have plenty of time to figure out who needs that vaccine first — and how to get it to everyone else.

“The idea would be to prioritize the most vulnerable to becoming infected and becoming seriously ill when infected,” he said. “So vulnerable populations, like older adults or those who are immune-compromised.

Story continues below advertisement
“We can also identify people who are at risk of further spreading [the disease], so health-care workers, doctors, [those] who could pass it on to others.”
Click to play video: 'Racing to develop a treatment for COVID-19'
Racing to develop a treatment for COVID-19

By the time those populations have been vaccinated, Smith said manufacturers will have ideally continued production, so enough doses of the vaccine are available for more people. But he noted it will still take time to see an effect on daily lives.

Story continues below advertisement

“We can’t simply get rid of all these measures that are in place once we hit a certain number of cases on the epi curve. But I don’t think we’ll ever see 100 per cent immunity in our population.”

James Tiessen, an associate professor and director of health services management at Ryerson University, agrees. He believes a systematic rollout of a vaccine is possible, starting with the elderly and those most at risk, before moving to poorer populations and eventually the rest of the country.

But he explained that even once a vaccine is readily available, daily lives and routines could still be impacted by the pandemic in other ways.

“Everyone, of course, is worried about a second or third wave of infection after this. Should we let our guard down? That could be a key issue,” he said.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

“I don’t think society as a whole is willing to tolerate the risk associated with saying, ‘I survived this wave and now I’m OK.’ I think society is going to be a little more risk-averse.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau warns Canadians to expect ‘wavelets’ of COVID-19 outbreaks in coming months'
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau warns Canadians to expect ‘wavelets’ of COVID-19 outbreaks in coming months

Trudeau said Thursday that a return to “normality as it was before” the pandemic relies on the development of a vaccine, and urged Canadians to continue staying at home and to practise physical distancing until that day comes.

Story continues below advertisement

His comments came just after the release of modelling data that federal health officials have been using to inform Canada’s response to the pandemic.

The models suggested the first wave of the virus could end roughly sometime in the summer, but that further “wavelets” are possible in the following months.

Scientists have said that vaccines typically take years to develop as they undergo round after round of clinical trials, and have expressed optimism that protection against COVID-19 could arrive between 18 months and two years from now.

Tiessen said he was hopeful a vaccine could be developed even faster, and that researchers have already considerably ramped up their work. He also said it’s possible that experts don’t want to set a deadline that’s too early, so people won’t be disappointed and “give up.”

Will it be like the flu shot?

Vaccines shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all, Smith explained, pointing to the number of influenza cases still seen every year around the world despite the wide availability of the flu shot.

Click to play video: 'Ontario researchers race toward treatment and vaccine for COVID-19'
Ontario researchers race toward treatment and vaccine for COVID-19
“If you look at other respiratory illnesses … the only one we have a vaccine for is the common flu, and we still need [a shot] every year to keep up with the mutations,” he said.
Story continues below advertisement

Tiessen said it’s possible we could see a new kind of flu shot for coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19 that people will add to their annual checklist of immunizations.

“It would reduce the demand on the health-care system in general, which could also sort of get us back to normal in a way,” he said, pointing to the strain that hospitals and health workers are under during the pandemic. 

More than 70 countries, including Canada, have joined the World Health Organization’s trial to accelerate research on effective COVID-19 treatments, while 20 countries are “racing to develop a vaccine,” the organization’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva Monday.

Story continues below advertisement

More than a dozen large U.S. drugmakers, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, have announced plans in recent months to develop vaccines and treatments, although few, if any, are likely to reach patients in time to stem the current outbreak.

Other possible solutions

Tiessen said there are promising signs that therapies and other factors could arrive to slow the spread of the virus — or at least curb its symptoms — before a vaccine is ready.

Clinical trials are currently underway for a small number of drugs, including the anti-malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine, that could prove effective in fighting COVID-19, though they have not yet been approved by health authorities for that use.

Click to play video: 'Federal coronavirus modelling numbers released'
Federal coronavirus modelling numbers released

And researchers in the U.S. are conducting blood tests for antibodies in people who have contracted the disease and recovered or shown no symptoms to see if they could be immune, the New York Times and Politico reported. That could also help determine the rollout of a vaccine, Tiessen said.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re not quite sure yet, but the science is starting to point that way, which is how other viruses operate: if you catch it, you’re immune,” he said.

“If we roll out blood tests to everyone first to see who has it and who may be immune, that could see a smaller rollout of the vaccine, which could then happen more quickly.”

Smith added as long as the vaccine is distributed fairly and with the most vulnerable populations in mind, that could then help dictate what the future holds — and whether it resembles “normal life” before the pandemic.

“Something as precious as a vaccine for this pandemic should be allocated in a way that doesn’t privilege arbitrary or irrelevant characteristics like a political rank, social status, race, ethnicity, anything like that,” he said.

“It should be based on good science and an ethical approach.”

—With files from Global’s Beatrice Britneff and Andrew Russell, and Reuters

Sponsored content