The Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine

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It’s the million dollar medical question: when will a Covid-19 vaccine be ready?

There are currently 11 COVID-19 vaccines being tested for large-scale efficacy across the world. For most governments, there is one big question: are these vaccines safe? The answer is not yet known and may remain that way post-release. Most vaccines take many years, or sometimes even decades, to go through the full process of research, testing and full-scale distribution. For example, it took about 30 years from the discovery of the cholera virus to the creation of the first vaccine. For polio, it took almost 45 years, and the resulting vaccine had multiple severe side effects. The point is that getting a safe and effective vaccine out in about a year is a very difficult task that poses many issues

In order for a vaccine to get released, it has to pass three phases of testing. The first is safety and dosage tests. This is where scientists give the vaccine to a small group of people to test how safe it is and to gauge the appropriate dosage. The next phase is the expanded trials. Scientists give the vaccine to as many people from many different age, gender and race groups as possible to see if it has different effects on different groups. These trials further test the safety and effectiveness. The final stage is the efficacy trials. This is the largest phase and tests the most total number of people. Half of the participants are given a placebo, while the other half are given the real thing. Scientists compare the results from both groups and evaluate the overall safety. For a vaccine to be considered effective, it has to protect at least 50 percent of those who receive it. The final phase may also reveal previously undiscovered rare side effects. If the vaccine passes all three phases it can be distributed for large-scale use. However, some vaccines can skip the final phase if they get approval from their government and be released for limited use. This has already occurred with COVID-19.

The efficacy trials, also known as phase three, is considered the most important phase in the production of a vaccine. It not only has the most people participating but additionally it is the only phase where half of the participants receive a placebo. There is always a chance that an ineffective vaccine can make it to this phase in many different ways, including the genetic traits and immune system responses of previous participants.  There are currently five vaccines that have been released to a limited population in Russia and China that skipped phase three, despite warnings from the CDC and WHO that it was not a good idea. John Moore, a virologist from Weill Cornell Medical College said, “this is all beyond stupid.” Many have referred to the releasing of the vaccine in Russia as a “political statement,” and not as an actual attempt to improve the situation. No matter the reason for the early releases, health figures have made it very clear that this is not advised under any circumstances.

Due to the fact that this is the first pandemic in the modern era of technology, we don’t really know what to expect. Mainstream predictions for the release of a vaccine range from a couple of months to over a year and some people think even longer. With people around the world itching to get back to their normal lives, medical companies are working as hard as they can to release the first fully approved vaccine. In the end, it seems most global health experts can agree on one thing: only time will tell.