Medically reviewed by Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP on March 12, 2020 New — Written by Danielle Dresden
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), has spread rapidly from the first known cases in China in December 2019 to countries around the world.
On March 10, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there were 113,702 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world, plus 4,012 deaths.
In response to this global health crisis, researchers are working on developing a coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible.
Learn more about vaccine development and the possible timeline in this article.
Research into a coronavirus vaccine is ongoing.
Researchers striving to develop a coronavirus vaccine are working with different approaches, including:
whole virus vaccine
recombinant protein subunit vaccine
nucleic acid vaccine
The sections below will discuss these approaches in more detail.
Whole virus vaccine
Whole virus vaccines use weakened or dead forms of the virus that causes the disease.
They can be effective at providing immunity in the long run, but there is a risk that some people could develop symptoms of the illness due to the vaccination.
Reports state that Johnson & Johnson, Codagenix, and researchers at the University of Hong Kong are working on this kind of vaccine.
Recombinant protein subunit vaccine
Recombinant protein subunit vaccines do not carry the risk of causing an infection in people who receive them, because they do not contain any live pathogens.
Researchers are investigating whether or not they can make a recombinant protein subunit vaccine that targets a protein called spike (S-) protein. The new coronavirus uses the S-protein to attach to and infect cells.
Novavax, Clover Biopharmaceuticals, the University of Queensland, and a consortium led by Texas Children’s Hospital for Vaccine Development are using this approach to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Other researchers are investigating whether or not they can create a vaccine using antibodies from the SARS outbreak that began in 2002.
SARS has many similarities to COVID-19, as they are caused by related coronaviruses.
So far, scientists have shown that the antibodies that neutralize the SARS-causing virus can also limit how well the new coronavirus infects cells in laboratory studies.
Nucleic acid vaccine
Nucleic acid vaccines inject genetic material, such as DNA or RNA, into a live host. The cells that contain the new nucleic acid then make the proteins that were encoded in the DNA or RNA, which they present to the immune system.
Although the process is complex, nucleic acid vaccines enable the immune system to fight off particular pathogens.
Using nucleic acids such as DNA or RNA to deliver immunity is a promising approach, but to date, it is a technique only available in veterinary medicine.
However, researchers say that three companies are looking to develop a coronavirus vaccine using this approach: Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna Therapeutics, and Curevac.
When will it be ready?
Projections for how long it will take to develop a coronavirus vaccine vary widely, depending on whether the person making the projection is a scientist, politician, or businessperson.
Politicians and manufacturers alike have implied that a coronavirus vaccine could be available within months.
However, based on their knowledge and experience, scientists say that developing a coronavirus vaccine:
could take at least a year
might not be possible during the current outbreak
could take 12–18 months
If the timeline for the production and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine seems long, that is because there are many steps in place to ensure that it is safe and effective.
Specifically, once researchers create a potential vaccine, prospective producers must submit an Investigational New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that describes the product, the manufacturing process, and its effectiveness in animal testing.
In the next phase, a vaccine must successfully complete the following series of clinical trials:
Phase I: This evaluates the vaccine’s safety and ability to generate an immune system response in a small group of people.
Phase II: This tests many people, possibly hundreds, to determine the right dosage levels.
Phase III: This tests thousands of people to analyze the safety and effectiveness of the drug.
Which treatments exist in the meantime?
Specific medications to treat COVID-19 do not yet exist. Treatment will focus on alleviating symptoms while a person recovers.
Antibiotics cannot treat COVID-19, as they are meant for bacterial infections and have no affect on viruses such as coronavirus.
However, some researchers are looking at repurposing existing drugs, including antibiotics, as COVID-19 treatments. Learn more here.
Public health experts and medical professionals also recommend that people with the illness try to stay away from others during recovery.
Public health measures that limit the spread of infection include:
rapid testing and identification of sick people
isolation of people with COVID-19
social isolation, such as closing schools and businesses and canceling large gatherings
Different governments and organizations have taken varying approaches to limiting the spread of coronavirus.
People who think they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and develop symptoms such as a fever, cough, or trouble breathing should call their doctor, according to the CDC.
The most important thing that people with mild forms of the disease can do is make sure that they limit contact with others, especially older adults and those with compromised immune systems.
Some people with COVID-19 will require medical treatment, and some may need to stay in the hospital.
Before seeing a doctor or going to the hospital, however, a person should call the facility to alert them to the fact that someone is coming in who may have COVID-19. Also, wear a face mask on the way.
Hospitals are equipped with the medicine and personnel necessary to provide support for the most serious complications, including pneumonia and sepsis.
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines work by prompting the immune system to make antibodies to defend the body against a specific disease, as if they had it.
The key is to do so without actually making the person sick.
After a person receives a vaccination, they develop immunity to the disease, which means that their bodies would be able to fight it off if they ever had exposure to it.
An effective vaccine must stimulate the immune system but not kick it into overdrive. Finding the right balance between an effective vaccine and one that does not cause unwanted side effects is a challenge for all vaccines under development.
During a health emergency, when speed is vital, this part may be the most significant factor to slow down the development of a safe new vaccine.
Vaccines also need to be safe for different groups of people to use, including young children, older adults, healthcare workers, and people with underlying health conditions.
To protect themselves and others from coronavirus, people can try:
frequently washing their hands with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds
using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, if washing the hands is not possible
covering sneezes and coughing into the crook of the elbow
not touching their faces
regularly cleaning surfaces that people frequently touch, such as doorknobs
limiting or avoiding handshakes
staying home if sick
COVID-19 is currently a major health challenge as doctors and researchers work to develop effective preventive measures, such as vaccines.
Until a vaccine becomes available, people can protect themselves and others by following guidance from public health and medical experts.