Vaccines take years to develop. But mere months after the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was first spotted, a team at the University of Oxford is already recruiting for human clinical trials for its vaccine against the disease, while researchers at Imperial College London took just two weeks from receiving the sequenced genome of the virus to producing a candidate vaccine. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) believes one of the eight projects it is backing can create a vaccine within a year; that includes work led by American firm Moderna, which is already partway through its first clinical trial.
The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the slow, safe vaccine development process, but even the most aggressive predictions don’t see us getting protective jabs until next year at the earliest. There are safety risks to cutting corners, which may see trials run concurrently rather than carefully waiting for results before continuing, but somehow the biggest hurdle may be a lack of funding, with researchers saying they lack the money to keep trials running beyond March.
Despite those challenges the virus’ unprecedented spread has sparked a rush to find a vaccine. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there are two vaccines in clinical trials — one from the pharmaceutical firm Moderna, plus another from CanSino and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology — with a further 42 candidate vaccines under clinical evaluation, including Oxford’s, which is recruiting for clinical trials.
Those 44 vaccines use a wide range of delivery platforms and techniques to trigger the necessary immune response to protect our bodies from Sars-CoV-2. Generally, vaccines work by mimicking a disease with parts of a virus or a deactivated virus to generate an immune response from the body.
The traditional, classical technique – think smallpox and cows – involve deactivating the pathogen so it can be used to trigger the immune system in a person without making them sick. That can include chemically inactivating the virus or live-attenuating it, meaning the vaccine uses a live but weaker version of the virus, which may be mutated until it’s no longer a threat, explains Nicola Stonehouse, a professor in molecular virology at the University of Leeds. “There are still people thinking about developing a coronavirus vaccine in those very classical ways — but they do take time,” Stonehouse says. One example is the Serum Institute of India, which is developing a live-attenuated vaccine for the Sars-CoV-2 based on existing TB vaccines; that company is fast-tracking the work and hopes to begin human trials within six months.