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The Race for a Vaccine

Pharmaceutical companies are closer to a treatment that will help prevent people from contracting Covid-19. Here’s what you need to know.

Ted S. Warren/AP Images

EARLY TEST: A volunteer receives a shot during the first stage of a trial for a potential vaccine being developed at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

Scientists have been working around the clock to find a way to halt the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts believe the best way to do that is with a vaccine. This medicine would give people immunity, or the ability to fight off an infection, making it less likely that they’ll contract the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

Usually, it takes a long time—between 10 and 15 years—to create a vaccine against a disease. “The fastest reported vaccine was developed in four years, and that was the mumps vaccine,” in the 1960s, says Dr. Amesh Adalja, an expert on infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Mumps is a viral infection that causes painful swelling in a person’s face. Scientists aim to create a U.S. government-approved vaccine against Covid-19 in much less time—by the end of 2020. That’s just one year after the first Covid-19 cases were reported in China.

This lightning-fast development has been aided by the U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed.” The project gave billions of dollars to pharmaceutical companies to create a Covid-19 vaccine. There are several promising candidates in the final phase of testing. Companies have already started producing millions of doses of these vaccines. That way, if deemed safe and effective, they can be distributed to the public as soon as possible. This has never happened before, says Dr. Craig Spencer, the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Usually, a vaccine isn’t manufactured in large quantities until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves it.

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP Images

LAB WORK: A healthcare worker examines test tubes filled with blood samples during a Covid-19 vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Florida.

To test a potential vaccine, scientists first administer it to a few people (at most, several dozen). Then researchers check to see if the vaccine caused volunteers’ immune systems to mount a defense against the disease they’re targeting. If it does, and if there aren’t severe side effects, the vaccine is tested on a larger group of 25 to 100 people.

During the final stage of testing, the vaccine is given to a group that can range between several hundred and thousands of people. At this stage, researchers give some volunteers the actual vaccine and others a placebo—a harmless substance that looks like the vaccine, but has no effect on the body. Some people from both groups will naturally be exposed to the targeted disease in their everyday environment. So, if fewer people who received the real vaccine get sick than those in the placebo group, scientists can be pretty sure the vaccine is doing its job. The large-scale trial helps researchers determine how effective the vaccine will be at protecting the overall population from getting sick. “Under normal circumstances, pharmaceutical companies’ approach to developing new vaccines is to start small and be cautious,” says Spencer. But for potential Covid-19 vaccines, scientists have raced through the early testing steps.

So far, more than 170 different coronavirus vaccines are in development worldwide. Only a few have made it to large-scale trials, the final step before approval. Russia and China have already authorized the emergency use of some vaccines their scientists developed. But the typical rigorous safety tests were not completed on those fast-tracked vaccines. The medicines have already been given to millions of people in those countries.

President Donald Trump has pushed to have a vaccine approved before the upcoming presidential election on November 3. Experts worry that political pressure to rush a coronavirus vaccine without the proper testing could be dangerous. Many people, too, have expressed wariness about the safety of a fast-tracked vaccine. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only half of Americans would take a coronavirus vaccine if it were immediately available. Government scientists and pharmaceutical companies, though, have pledged to not release a coronavirus vaccine until they have enough data on its safety and ability to give people immunity. The right vaccine could save millions of lives in the U.S., which, as of October 20, has seen more than 225,000 deaths from Covid-19. Until a vaccine is ready, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing a face mask, social distancing, and washing your hands often are the best tools against infection with the coronavirus.

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