At the center of the coronavirus pandemic is a word that sparks just a little bit of hope everywhere. That word is: vaccine. A vaccine is a type of medicine that protects people from certain bacterial and viral diseases. Specifically, vaccines help a person’s immune system develop antibodies—proteins that fight these diseases. A vaccine—in other words—helps your body’s superheroes fight off the villains who want to take over your body! Sweet, right?
So why isn’t there a vaccine for the horrible coronavirus? Well, it’s not that simple. Countries around the world are working on possible vaccines, but developing an effective vaccine that’s safe for humans takes time. In fact, developing a safe vaccine can take years, if not decades. Why? Let’s break it down, shall we?
Any potential vaccine must pass four key phases (sometimes broken into six phases) before it can reach the mass market (that’s us!)
Phase I: Scientists take strains of the actual virus and come up with possible biological combinations that could potentially be the recipe for a vaccine. During this phase, there could be as many as a hundred combinations. This phase is called discovery research and it can take anywhere from two to five years.
Phase II: Once possible biological combinations have been identified, vaccines move into phase II. Phase II, or the preclinical stage of a vaccine is when scientists test the different possible vaccines to answer questions such as: Will this vaccine provide protection and immunity? This phase could take up to two years and many vaccines don’t make it past this phase.
Phase III: During this phase, scientists ask more specific questions that relate to the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. This phase often takes one to five years of testing. At the end of phase III, often only one vaccine is considered effective.
Phase IV: And finally, after discovery research, pre-clinical trials, and then further testing, a potential vaccine must go through a regulations and review process before it can be widely distributed to the world.
It takes a long time to come up with an effective vaccine. Take the Polio vaccine, for example. Polio was first discovered in the 1890s, but it reached its peak infection rate in the United States in 1952. A vaccine for the disease wasn’t available until 1955 but the United States didn’t declare itself polio-free until 1979.
Yes, the average timeline for a vaccine to reach the mass market takes years, which makes people wonder: How long will it actually take to make a safe and effective vaccine for the coronavirus? The good news is that advances in science and technology have helped to speed up the discovery phase of vaccine development. Although speed of discovery doesn’t always lead to success, scientists are hopeful that more rapid discovery and testing will lead to a vaccine for the coronavirus before the end of this year. Fingers crossed!