We discussed in a previous post about the challenges in producing a coronavirus vaccine - developing an effective vaccine can take more than a decade of dedicated research. But now it has become clear that technology and global collaboration has massively increased the speed of this process. Experts estimate that a vaccine might be available as early as mid-2021 – less than two years after the outbreak began.
In labs around the world researchers are hunched over lab benches, running experiments and processing data on almost 80 different vaccine candidates. And a few are already being tested in clinical trials involving people. But which bold ideas are involved in the current race for a coronavirus vaccine?
Most traditional vaccines, such as the MMR or seasonal flu shot, use a dead or weakened version of the virus to stimulate our immune system into producing an immune response. Simply put, the vaccine puts your immune system on high alert, ready to attack and destroy the virus should you become infected.
Similar vaccines use small parts of the virus – a protein or other molecule - to achieve the same result. The body’s immune response to these vaccines can last for a long time providing long-term immunity against the virus. One coronavirus vaccine that has made it into clinical trials is called Ad5-nCoV – a vaccine that uses protein fragments from the coronavirus to try and elicit an immune response in patients.
A newer type of vaccine that has also entered clinical trials is called an RNA vaccine. This approach uses a type of genetic material called RNA, the sister molecule of DNA, to help the body recognise and defend itself from the coronavirus.
RNA provides the blueprints that cells use to build proteins. An RNA vaccine contains blueprints for harmless viral proteins that are delivered to cells in our body. These cells can then use the blueprint to build the viral proteins, which the immune system can then recognise and build immunity against.
While this approach has the advantage of being much quicker than the more traditional ways of developing a vaccine, it has never been approved for human use. But we know from cancer research that RNA vaccines can be safely used in humans. RNA vaccines have been tested in clinical trials for several types of cancer, including people with prostate, bowel and skin cancer.
While the speed at which vaccines are being developed is impressive, there are still many questions that researchers need to answer before any vaccine can be rolled out to the wider public. We still need to understand how people react to the vaccine – do they produce a big enough immune response? Is the immune response effective? How long does it last? Until these questions are answered, scientists will remain hunched over their lab benches, working hard on research that will bring us back together.