Researchers from around the world are all racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19.
And they’re close — a number of approaches are about to start human trials — from Band-Aid-like microneedle stickers to traditional shots in the arm. Still, experts say, widespread vaccine use could be at least a couple of years away.
“If everything went perfectly, well, [it would take] 18 months to two years minimum,” says Dr. Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health. “More realistically, three to four years and that would still be fast.”
Still, Tracey and other researchers on the front line of the pandemic have more hope lately.
“We will beat this virus, whether it’s 18 months, two years or four years,” he tells The Post. “Our treatment protocols are improving every day.”
Here’s what we know so far.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
One of the most promising COVID-19 vaccines is in the works from Moderna Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Massachussets, biotech company, and human trials have already begun — bringing it one step closer to the necessary FDA approval.
The vaccine was developed at a rapid speed, partly due to China releasing the genetic sequencing for the novel coronavirus in January, giving scientists around the world a head start. Researchers were also able to refurbish previous vaccine research on another coronavirus, the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), and its outbreak in 2012.
Another vaccine on tap is from Novavax, a Maryland-based company that has reworked its previous vaccine research from the similar coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and its outbreak in 2002-2004. According to TIME, Novavax has “several candidates,” that will be ready for testing on humans in the coming months.
University of Pittsburgh researchers also hope to start human clinical trials this spring for their newly developed vaccine that uses microneedle technology to administer the medication, rather than an actual needle. The vaccine was also based on previous research on MERS and SARS, and their work was recently published in the Lancet.
“These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” said co-senior author Dr. Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine. “We knew exactly where to fight this new virus.”
Another vaccine trial that has been approved by the FDA for human testing is by Inovio Pharmaceuticals which is backed by Bill and Melinda Gates. Like the others, the vaccine is a spin-off of a previously developed MERS vaccine that already had a promising phase 1 study.
How quickly can a vaccine go from testing to widespread use?
Going from mice to humans to worldwide use doesn’t happen overnight. Some vaccines take decades before they’re used — if ever.
Tracey notes that the flu and polio vaccines “took decades” to develop, and when it comes to viruses like COVID-19, there is a two-arm approach to drug research: You can try to find a vaccine to treat a wide population or you can treat the virus head-on, like with HIV, for example. After all these years, there is still no HIV vaccine, but scientists have found drugs that treat the virus.
When it comes to vaccine development, once the human testing phase begins, scientists first have to determine if the vaccine causes an antibody response, Tracey tells The Post. Next, scientists have to see if the produced antibodies are effective against the virus. Then, of course, researchers have to make sure the antibodies aren’t dangerous.
“Some people make good antibodies and some people make bad ones, and some people can make both,” Tracey says. “Bad antibodies can make the infection worse.”
For example, if you immunize 1,000 people with a vaccine that protects 900 of them, but it makes 100 people worse, that’s a disaster, Tracey says.
“You can’t make the clock run faster,” Tracey says. “You can’t rush these things. A vaccine is going in healthy people. It has to have almost zero side effects.”
What treatments are available?
The CDC’s website is clear: “There are no drugs or other therapeutics approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to prevent or treat COVID-19.”
But the agency does list two therapies under investigation to treat COVID-19.
First, the controversial hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, which are taken orally and have been used in the past for the treatment of malaria and some inflammatory conditions, is also being studied as a “treatment of patients with mild, moderate and severe COVID-19,” according to the CDC. But there’s only anecdotal evidence that the medicine could combat the coronavirus, and federal officials don’t recommend taking the drug in an uncontrolled environment.
Its potential side effects include everything from fatal heart arrhythmia to vision loss, ear-ringing, vomiting, mood changes, skin rashes and hair loss.
A second drug, Remdesivir, manufactured by the California-based biotech company Gilead Sciences, has been in creation for a decade. It was once seen as a potential Ebola treatment but those trials were unsuccessful. Results from the first clinical trial testing Remdesivir — administered through an IV — for COVID-19 are expected this month.
The CDC says — but does not name — that there are numerous other treatments in the works.
One such treatment is the Japanese flu drug, favipiravir, which is already being used as a treatment in Turkey and Japan. Made by Fujifilm, the drug was found to improve lung function in 91% of patients in a Chinese study. On Tuesday, three Massachusetts hospitals received FDA approval to launch the first clinical trials of the drug.
Another promising treatment comes from researchers at Johns Hopkins, who have developed a therapy that uses blood plasma from recovered patients. Last week, the FDA approved a clinical trial for Johns Hopkins to test the therapy as a preventive measure on healthy people. The university is also waiting on FDA approval for another trial — this time, on patients who are “slightly or moderately ill to see if the serum will keep them out of ICUs and help bring them back to health,” according to the university.
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