Development of COVID-19 vaccine still in the works

Glass vials as packaging for a potential COVID-19 vaccine. (Image credits: AP Photos | SCHOTT)

Meredith Pratt | Staff Writer

Right now, there is a global question: “When will there be a coronavirus vaccine?”

Months after the COVID-19 outbreak began, a vaccine has still not been approved by the FDA.

The World Health Organization website reports that “there are currently over 169 COVID-19 vaccine candidates under development, with 26 of these in the human trial phase.” The New York Times has even created a “Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker” for those interested in viewing the real-time progress of vaccine trials.

Colleyville senior Luke Bazaldua, who said he will be applying to medical school shortly, explained that many aspects play into the development and mass production of a COVID-19 vaccine. He said one thing vital to creating a COVID-19 vaccine is funding.

“The onset of the pandemic happened rather suddenly in the United States,” Bazaldua said. “Large pharmaceutical companies likely already had a plan for the fiscal year laid out, and the sudden diversion of large sums of money to fund vaccine research cannot happen overnight. There was already a plan for what would be done with the available funds at the time the pandemic hit.”

“Development would take thousands of man hours of research by well educated professionals, who would need to be compensated well,” Bazaldua said.

Another aspect of developing the vaccine to consider is specificity.

“Viruses mutate, and they mutate quickly. Vaccines are specific to a virus, and even more so to a specific strain of the virus,” Bazaldua said. “This is why each year the flu vaccine is our best guess at which strain of the flu will be prevalent that year. Sometimes we are right, and other years where flu season is worse than normal, we are wrong. Same goes for COVID-19.”

Bazaldua said that the coronavirus is actually a general term used for a well-known family of viruses.

“The common cold is caused by a coronavirus, but COVID-19 is caused by a strain of coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2,” Bazaldua said. “Producing, isolating and purifying this strain in a safe manner can prove to be incredibly difficult. Once this is complete, an antigen that mimics SARS-CoV-2 must be produced, isolated and purified. Purification is a task that can require many iterations of various techniques, and thus can be very time consuming.”

A third and necessary part of creating a vaccine is testing, which is done is several stages.

According to the CDC, there are several phases of vaccine approval: exploratory stage, pre-clinical stage, clinical development, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing and quality control.

“Clinical development in-and-of-itself is a three-phase process where larger and larger groups of people receive the vaccine on each consecutive trial,” Bazaldua said. “Patients must be followed for several weeks and months to assure against any long-term effects.

“Once clinical development has been completed, it must undergo regulatory review and approval, which again, due to bureaucracy and the [extensive process] of reviewing a substance to be administered to humans, takes many, many months, if not years.” Bazaldua said. “Lastly, the producer of the vaccine must provide the infrastructure and means by which to mass produce the vaccine, or partner with other corporations in order to be able to provide it on a scale that would be useful to the population.”

Dr. Emily Smith, a Baylor professor of epidemiology who teaches courses on global health and epidemiology, said she is “hopeful” that there will be a vaccine soon.

“Thankfully there are very smart people working on several vaccine candidates … but we need to wait until the final safety and effectiveness data from Phase Three are in,” Smith said.

Smith said she thinks of the study of epidemiology as the “weather-person” of the pandemic.

“Many, many of us saw a hurricane coming on the radar and were trying to ask people to prepare for it, but it’s hard to get people to prepare for a hurricane when it looks sunny outside … until a few days later when the storm hits,” Smith said. “My initial reaction was fear of what was to come if we didn’t take it seriously, which is much like the storm we now see.”

Smith said the most common misconceptions she hears about the virus “include statements that COVID-19 is not different than the flu, there’s nothing we could have done to avoid the situation we are now in and the virus will be over in November.”

“All of these statements are not true and can be pretty harmful to the overall situation,” Smith said. “These types of statements can dictate behaviors that are not neighborly, such as choosing to not wear masks or distance properly.”

Over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, Smith has been sharing her knowledge on the epidemic on her Facebook page. She has been open about how her faith influences her posts.

“Masks and physical distancing do not hinder our freedom or show fear,” Smith said in a July post. “But, rather could be the strongest symbols of the Cross and Galatians 5 we can give to the world.”

Although a vaccine is not yet available, Smith continues to educate her audience about the most recent findings.

“I hope my FB page can help people understand the epidemiological concepts around COVID-19,” Smith said. “I also hope to bring attention to the social justice aspects of COVID-19 and how faith can inform our responses and behaviors.”