Social distancing, self-isolation, city-wide lockdowns—they can only do so much. In order to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, we need a vaccine. So, how long will we have to wait?by Philip Ball / March 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
“Do me a favour, speed it up, speed it up.” That is what Donald Trump has been saying to the executives of pharmaceutical companies about their quest for a vaccine for the coronavirus. He has been told very clearly, not least by Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), that a vaccine will take at least a year to 18 months to develop. But, wrote H Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science in mid-March in an uncharacteristically furious outburst at the US president, “Apparently, Trump thought that simply repeating his request would change the outcome.”
The remark was, you might say, classic Don: petulant, heedless of inconvenient truths and spectacularly ignorant. (He reportedly crowned it with a botched offer of “large sums of money” to a German manufacturer to produce a putative vaccine exclusively for use in the United States.) But one can sense some of that same impatience in the air more broadly: why is there going to be no pharmaceutical magic bullet to get us through this crisis, but only one that will mop up afterwards?
Here, though, is the harsh truth: there will almost certainly be no vaccine ready to use against the Covid-19 virus until early 2021, and perhaps not before the summer of that year.
A typical timescale for developing a vaccine is 15-20 years—remember that there is still no vaccine against HIV today. The only way a coronavirus vaccine could be created as fast as this is by taking new approaches and judiciously cutting corners—for example, by taking some steps of the process that would normally be done sequentially and doing them simultaneously. “This is actually going very fast,” says virologist Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the NIAID.
Already there are candidate vaccines entering clinical trials, the first stage of which is to test for safety in humans. This is remarkable for a new virus that was only recognised in late December. These trials are one thing you just can’t rush—it takes time to be reasonably sure there are no nasty side-effects,…