There are more than 150 COVID-19 vaccines currently in trials across the globe, per the World Health Organization.
Experts postulate that some human trials may conclude in late 2020, but a vaccine won't arrive until spring 2021 at the earliest, and a majority won't be available until that fall.
Trials will establish how effective a vaccine is, whether it'll stop you from getting sick again, and how many shots you'll need for best results.
After four months of quarantines, social distancing, and disrupted routines, it's the one question that almost everyone has on their minds: When will a new coronavirus vaccine be ready? The answer, just like every other aspect of this new virus thus far, isn't clear. But creating an effective vaccine is only half the battle, say leading health experts who work with international data and set policies here in the United States, and usually the process takes up to 15 years. Distributors will also have to rush out any new vaccine to all 50 states when the time comes. Plus, there's another big follow-up question to consider: Will everyone actually sign up for a vaccine when it's ready?
A team of journalists at the New York Times are keeping tabs on every single COVID-19 vaccine trial occurring across the globe; per their data, more than 150 vaccines are in development, with nearly 25 of them already in human trials (with new trials popping up every day). COVID-19 patients in Brazil were among the first to be admitted into human trials, and a first human trial has already concluded in Russia, Forbes reports; here in the United States, one high-profile trial being conducted by Moderna is now testing thousands of volunteers this month, according to National Geographic. Eventually, we'll hear about the trials here in the U.S. that are the most promising in the eyes of the government, as Operation Warp Speed — a government-backed initiative to invest billions of dollars towards producing a new vaccine — was unveiled in May.
So when will we see the first potential vaccine, then? Based on early reports and chatter from the international health community, a team behind a high-profile vaccine trial in the United Kingdom seems to "think they're going to be the first around the track," explains William Schaffner, M.D., the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, where he has been consulting for multiple organizations (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). "It could well be that in late fall, some data may become available — but for the most part, [the medical community] anticipates that it won't be rolled out until the early part of next year."
If you're interested in keeping tabs on each individual trial as it progresses, officials at the World Health Organization are updating a landscape document about ongoing vaccine candidates on a current basis. View their progress tracker.
Will the vaccine allow us to stop social distancing?
It's another important question, since it appears that attempts to reopen businesses and resume routines are still leading to upswings in new COVID-19 cases and deaths (Florida, Texas, and California may have accounted for 20% of the world's cases in mid-July alone). The key to understanding why a vaccine is so important requires an understanding of the term herd immunity. "The herd immunity is achieved in populations through both natural methods and built resistance — as in someone recovers from the infection — as well as artificially induced immunity, as in resistance with the help of a vaccine," explains Bojana Berić-Stojšić, MD, PhD, CHES, an ambassador for the United Nations' Society for Public Health Education and director of the master of public health program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "There has to be 95% of the population that's resistant (either naturally or artificially) to a virus for herd immunity to occur."
Theoretically, herd immunity could naturally become quite high (upwards of 60% of the population) before the vaccine arrives — thus reducing the likelihood of transmission in public — but experts are trying desperately to avoid this scenario. "We certainly don't want to come to that, because that would require a colossal number of deaths and hospitalizations that would have occurred by the time we achieve that… Until we have a viable vaccine, we have to continue social distancing, wearing masks, and all of the other methods we know now," Dr. Schaffner explains.
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After a vaccine is made available to the American public, we may finally start to see our routines return to pre-COVID schedules, and for social distancing guidance to be lifted, Dr. Berić-Stojšić adds. "If there was a safe and effective vaccine available, theoretically, that would be the best solution to lift social and business restrictions," she says. "[But] only if at least 80% of the population would be immunized, with another 15% having recovered from COVID-19 or already being naturally resistant."
But therein lies another question: Will most or all Americans sign up for the vaccine? An early poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 50% of adults who were polled indicated they would get a shot when the time came. "It's not a foregone conclusion that we'll be able to reach out and vaccinate everyone," Dr. Schaffner says. "As much as the vaccine is anticipated by many, others will have to be persuaded to participate… Some people are going to wait for a whole lot of others to get vaccinated to make sure it's safe."
Who would get a COVID-19 vaccine?
When a vaccine is developed, supply will be limited at first — and the government will have to decide who gets it first. According to Dr. Schaffner, CDC officials are working on a roll-out plan for the COVID-19 vaccine at the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices; this group established who was first in line for a swine-flu vaccine back in 2009, for example. "That committee is in the middle of a very elaborate discussion, and they're reaching out to all kinds of professional organizations to get some sort of idea about a prioritization scheme."
Normally, a vaccine isn't actually rolled out geographically; it'll be done by the characteristics of a community, Dr. Schaffner says. "Some [characteristics] are illness rates, but some might be race, because we know that people of color and lower socio-economic standing are more apt to have serious disease," he explains, adding that age and occupations may also come into play. "Healthcare workers ought to be first in line, those who are caring for the very sick, because we need them to be healthy."
While the prioritization scheme isn't established just yet, Dr. Schaffner says there will be a protocol scheme in place, but it may change as the pandemic unfolds. "Sometimes, despite planning, you have vaccine left in the refrigerator because you couldn't get people who were eligible to come in… You have to have some flexibility, because obviously it can't be implemented in the same way everywhere around the country simultaneously."
How will the coronavirus vaccine work?
At first, there were many comparisons made between the flu and COVID-19 — so naturally, some people are wondering if a COVID vaccine might function like a flu shot. "There's no way to answer this definitely at this time, because there's no indication what type of vaccine is both safe and effective in humans," Dr. Berić-Stojšić says. "I think, even if the virus remains unchanged, there will be multiple vaccines available, but not before the fall of 2021."
Clinical trials will determine whether or not we'll need only one vaccine, or if we'll need to have a new shot each year during what will be a doubly tough flu season. Plus, it could be that a vaccine isn't totally preventative — just like a flu shot — meaning you could still come down with COVID-19 despite a shot. "Whatever the level of protection, how long will it last? Will it last five years, or will everyone have to roll up both sleeves, get a flu shot on one side, and COVID on the other?" Dr. Schaffner muses. "I'm afraid the answer to those questions is, well, we won't know until we know."
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.
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