Thousands of researchers around the world have been working tirelessly to develop a vaccine to treat the novel coronavirus that has wreaked havoc across the globe.
But, they say it could be two years before any such vaccine would be ready for public consumption.
Challenges to vaccine development
The biggest challenge researchers face when trying to develop vaccines for emerging viruses like SARS-CoV-2 is a lack of information, Dr. Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Toronto campus and a research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, told Global News.
She said because this novel coronavirus only spilled over into the human population a few months ago, researchers were essentially “starting from scratch.”
“We don’t have a clinical picture, we don’t have a genetic signature, we don’t have the protein signature,” she said. “We know nothing about this virus.”
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She said scientists have had to study what the virus is made of and how it behaves in order to develop a target.
Dr. Matthew Miller, an associate professor at McMaster University’s department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, said in general, coronaviruses pose a problem for vaccine development.
He explained that’s because researchers don’t have a very good understanding of what type of protection a vaccine would provide for this type of virus.
“For some vaccines, we know really, really specifically what cells in the immune system, for example, are really important for ensuring that you’re protected,” he said.
He said in some cases, scientists are able to measure “with pretty good confidence” whether a person is going to be protected from a virus or not.
But, this is not the case with SARS-CoV-2, Miller said.
“There are questions about how to generate a good protective response and how to measure that and what you need to measure,” he said. “And so that does pose a sort of significant challenge.”
But, these are not “insurmountable” challenges, said Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the University of Toronto.
She said it’s “reasonable” to be optimistic that a vaccine will be developed.
“People have tried to develop vaccines before, but never have we put this much effort into trying to find something that will work,” she said. “Never have so many approaches been tried.”
She said scientists are trying both traditional and innovative methods, and are hoping to end up with more than one effective vaccine.
According to Kelvin, the most traditional type of vaccine takes the entire virus and kills it. A patient is then immunized so their immune system can identify the virus before it encounters the live version.
“So, we’re basically educating your immune army to get ready and know what it’s looking for before it has to deal with something that could cause disease,” she said.
This has proven to be a safe and effective type of vaccine for other viruses, Kelvin said, but it takes time to develop.
“We have to get the virus, we have to culture it and make lots and lots of it to kill it,” she said. Researchers then need to confirm the virus has actually been killed, and that the quality of the vaccine is good enough to be given to people, she added.
She said when it comes to SARS-CoV-2, there are a number of other types of trials underway, including protein-based vaccines, RNA vaccines and DNA vaccines. Each has a different timeline.
Kelvin noted a number of trials already appear to be “promising.”
Miller, too, said he is “very confident” researchers will be successful, saying it’s more likely that we end up with “several different vaccines” than none at all.
He said while the proposed two-year timeline is short, it’s “reasonable.”
Miller said it will allow for adequate pre-clinical and clinical trials while also providing manufacturers time to prepare to mass produce and distribute the vaccines.
“All of that takes time,” he said.
What happens if the virus mutates?
Miller added one “encouraging” thing about the novel coronavirus is that it does not appear to be mutating as quickly as other viruses, like influenza.
That means scientists are able to hone in and understand how the virus works without having to adapt to new changes.
Crowcroft explained while it’s unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 will mutate significantly, if a vaccine has been developed, scientists would be able to reformulate it.
She said this would likely be a shorter process than developing the vaccine in the first place because scientists would not be starting from scratch.
This is common practice with the influenza vaccine, she explained.
Kelvin said researchers have already begun working on a pan-coronavirus vaccine, which would be able to treat a wide range of coronaviruses.
She said this vaccine would also account for potential mutations in the virus.
What has the Canadian government said?
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government will spend $1.1 billion for a national medical and research strategy that would include research into vaccines, treatments and supports for clinical trials.
He has also repeatedly stressed the importance of developing an effective treatment for the virus, saying the country will not return to “normal” until after a vaccine is developed.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trudeau said while trials are underway, the government has begun preparing to distribute vaccines once they become available.
“That is something that we are preparing already in terms of manufacturing and production capacity here in Canada because we know that countries around the world will be producing for their own citizens first and we need to be a part of that as well,” he said.
Kelvin said when it comes to supporting this research, Canada has “done a really good job.”
“They were much faster than the U.S. to get money out to where it was needed,” she said.
But, she said it is going to take “a lot of coordination” between the government, scientists and manufacturers in order to produce and distribute the vaccines once they are available.
“We need to have that partnership between scientists and industry to get this out to the whole population,” she said.
Moving forward, Kelvin said she would like to see continued support for this type of research.