As the world falls at the hands of COVID-19, it seems as though a vaccine is the only way out. Several biotech companies nationwide have been hard at work. However, vaccines often take years to produce, and given how little the community knows about COVID-19, it seems that we may possibly have several months of waiting ahead of us.
Viruses can’t create their own energy – they instead rely on host cells, which they hijack. They then steal energy and resources from the cell. A vaccine would ideally kill the virus before it begins to cause serious problems. Predictably, vaccines would therefore contribute to herd immunity. Without any safe hosts, it would eventually fizzle away, as seen with both Polio and Ebola.
Currently, the top two runners are Moderna and Pfizer, both of whom are engineering mRNA vaccines. In short, the vaccine contains instructions in the form of mRNA for the vaccinated individual’s cells to produce antigens, or “spike proteins”. These antigens would then stimulate production of antibodies, thus training the immune system to combat a future infection.
A recent trial found that Pfizer’s product was 90% effective. Should all go according to the plan, the company plans to begin mass distribution within the first quarter of 2021. Modera conducted similar trials recently, which demonstrated a 94% effectiveness rate.
Another biotech company, Johnson & Johnson commenced phase 3 trials back in late September. Similarly to Moderna and Pfizer, In this case, a genetically weakened virus, also known as a viral vector, will carry virus proteins into a host cell. Some viral vectors are also able to duplicate, which would lead to a wider distribution of the proteins, alluding to a more widespread immune response.
While the company is strangling a few months behind its competitors, their ideas have been met with optimism. Testing operations were transfered to San Diego in early October, where they enrolled 60,000 participants. Yet, after a trial participant had a stroke, supposedly due to the vaccine, trials were halted. They did, however resume eventually.
As one could expect, the competitors are being heavily monitored by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). While each vaccine poses its own unique set of challenges, they have to adhere to common guidelines as well, one of the most prominent being an effectiveness standard. Prior to mass distribution, a candidate must be at least 50% effective. The CDC also initiates several robust investigations.
Despite the precautionary measures, mass distribution will be a feat in and of itself. Most vaccines need to be stored at extremely specific temperatures, posing issues both financially, and logistically. Given the sheer size of the pandemic, a product would be in extremely high demand.
Johnson & Johnson’s product wouldn’t be quite as complicated, as it only has to be refrigerated; each person would only need to receive 1 dose as well. In contrast, Moderna’s and Pfizer’s, both have to be stored at below-freezing temperatures. Simultaneously, each individual would have to receive two doses, spaced 1 month apart, while Johnson & Johnson’s product would only require 1 dose.
Although no final plan regarding distribution has been released, it can be predicted that essential workers, particularly those in healthcare, will be some of the first to receive the vaccine. Elderly individuals, and those with pre-existing conditions will likely be at the top of the list as well. With this in mind, experts predict that children and youth will be of lower priority.
Biotech experts already predict that the COVID-19 vaccine will be produced at a record rate. Despite the public and political influences, Fauci is confident that a vaccine won’t be administered until it’s safe. He stated on numerous occasions that approval will be based solely on science and “hard data”.
COVID-19 has proved to be a pivotal time in our history. Research has been a nonstop ordeal, throwing its own unique set of twists and turns. Despite all the chaos, researchers have been working with the public interest in mind: a ticket back to everyday life.