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COVID-19 Vaccine: How Close Are We? 

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

For months now, pharmaceutical companies, government bodies, and top research institutes around the world have been racing to create the vaccine for COVID-19. There are a total of 197 vaccines undergoing developments. Majority of them haven’t been tested on humans and are still in the pre-clinical stage of testing, while 26 vaccines are ongoing human trials.

Vaccines usually require years of testing and production at scale, but as the number of cases around the world continue to rise, experts say that a fast-tracked vaccine development process could speed a successful candidate to market in approximately 12-18 months.

But will the vaccine be completed in time before the pandemic worsens?

How are vaccines tested?

Pre-clinical Testing: In this stage of development, researchers test a potential vaccine on animals to see if it triggers and produces an immune response. 

Phase I Safety Trials: Clinical trials look at the safety and effect of a potential vaccine in a small group that is usually less than 100 people.

Phase II Expanded Trials: Clinical trials continue to test the safety and effectiveness of a potential vaccine but on a much larger scale, involving up to several thousand people. This gives scientists more details on the correct and effective dosage.

Phase III Efficacy Trials: Clinical trials of the potential vaccine include thousands of people who will get vaccinated and wait to see how many become infected, compared with volunteers who received a placebo. This stage can determine if the vaccine protects against the virus.

Combined Phases: This is another way to accelerate vaccine development. Some vaccines are now in Phase I/II trials, which means they are being tested on hundreds of people for the first time. 

Frontrunners in vaccine development

As the pandemic continues to affect the lives of people around the world and the global economy, it has pushed the creation of unprecedented public-private partnerships. The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program is a collaboration of several federal government departments including Health and Human Services and its sub agencies, Agriculture, Energy and Veterans Affairs and the private sector. This collaboration accelerates development of drug and vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

Under Operation Warp Speed, the US government chose three vaccine candidates to fund for Phase III trials: Moderna’s mRNA-1273, The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca’s AZD1222, and Pzifer and BioNTech’s BNT162. These vaccines would need to provide data from placebo-controlled trials indicating that they are at least 50% effective against the coronavirus in order to be authorized for use, as per FDA guidance. 

Another frontrunner, but is not included in the US government’s Operation Warp Speed, is the vaccine being developed by a Chinese company called CanSino Biologics. The vaccine is based on adenovirus and is called Ad5-nCoV, in partnership with the Institute of Biology in China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences. And recently, the Chinese military approved the vaccine for a year as a “specially needed drug” for soldiers. 

Odds of finding an effective vaccine

Experts say that the virus won’t stop spreading until at least 60% of the global population is immune, and we can only achieve that through vaccines. Right now, the odds for finding a vaccine according to a Reuters special report is only about 6% of vaccine candidates will reach distribution. There are many potential problems and issues that vaccine developers can face, especially now that the pressure to produce an effective vaccine as early as possible is higher than ever.

But over the past few weeks, we have been seeing breakthroughs in vaccine development as well as in other drugs such as remdesvir, which gives hope that maybe we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 


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