Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are competing to develop and test treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus. Both are being done at an unprecedented rate, but researchers are working from scratch on vaccine development, so the process will take a long time. Florian Kramer, a professor and vaccine development expert at mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, says treatments and vaccine development are very different.
Treatment and vaccines are important to control outbreaks strongly. For COVID-19, the researchers hope to treat about 15 percent of non-mild patients. On the other hand, vaccines can help prevent disease. During the SARS and MERS outbreaks, scientists began working on drugs used to treat coronaviruses, but the work was never completed because the outbreak had died out. Now they can sort out old research and start researching it.
The leading drug candidate was Ridsiewe, developed by the pharmaceutical company Gilead. Studies have shown that it can block SARS and MERS viruses in cells and mice. In addition, Redciewe was originally developed for the Ebola virus, so it has been tested for safety to ensure no harm is done. That’s why teams in China and the U.S. were able to begin patient clinical trials of Redcievir so quickly. If proven effective, Gilead will be able to increase production and hand the drug over to a doctor fairly quickly.
The vaccine development process will take longer. Experts say it will take a year to 18 months, or even longer, to make available to the public. One of the strategies for making a vaccine involves replicating a portion of the virus (in this case, the part used by the new coronavirus to immerse cells). The person receiving the vaccine then produces antibodies in the immune system and that particular bit. If they are exposed to the virus, these antibodies will be able to prevent the virus from working.
Moderna, a pharmaceutical company, is leading the race for vaccines and is ready to test the vaccine. To ensure safety, they will begin testing 45 healthy people in March or April, which will take about three months to complete. It must then be tested in a larger group to see if it actually immunizes people against the new coronavirus. This will take six to eight months. Then it has to be manufactured on a large scale, which presents another challenge. Moderna says it has no production platform, no security experience and no idea if there will be complications. Basically, it has to start from scratch.