Over the past 200 years, vaccines have dramatically reduced infection rates for a range of pathogens and even eradicated diseases such as smallpox. Now, the world is eager to see an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. A vaccine could be an effective way to finally stop the spread. The International scientific community is working hard. Here’s what you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine development.
Why the COVID Vaccine has a Head Start
The pathogen that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus. This means that while this particular virus is new to the world, it is a member of a large family of coronaviruses that cause everything from the common cold to SARS. Because scientists have already studied coronaviruses in detail, they have a head start in developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.
Since scientists mapped the novel coronavirus’s genetic code in January, they have been working to develop a vaccine. Normally, vaccines can take years just to get to human trials. Because there had already been extensive research on SARS, MERS, and other coronavirus-related diseases, vaccine candidates became eligible for human trials in just a few months. Now, five candidates are undergoing large-scale trials in the U.S.
Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Be Safe and Effective?
There is no need to be concerned about a vaccine being “rushed” to the public. The Food and Drug Administration keeps close tabs on vaccine development and trials. Potential vaccines are tested under strict conditions, and all doses and side effects in the trials must be tracked. The trial cannot conclude until two months after all test doses have been given.
The current candidates also build upon the development of vaccines against SARS and MERS. While these vaccines were never finalized, that is only because those diseases faded relatively quickly and never reached pandemic levels. The pressure is on to fully develop and test a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, so the Department of Health and Human Services joined forces with the Department of Defense for Operation Warp Speed, which is expediting the trials.
After the FDA deems the final vaccine to be safe and effective, Operation Warp Speed will ensure that it is manufactured and distributed quickly. The federal government has also said that they will ensure the vaccine is both affordable and available to all Americans.
The Vaccine’s Role in Stopping the Pandemic
While masks, social distancing, travel restrictions, and other measures have slowed the spread of COVID-19, the virus continues to infect people. Not only are some people more susceptible to infection, but exposure can be hard to avoid in certain situations. The best way to stop a pandemic is to use all available tools. As history has shown us, a vaccine is a very powerful tool.
Some people are questioning whether the current infection rate is enough to grant herd immunity. The truth is, there has not been enough time to study the lasting impact of COVID-19 infection. We don’t know how long antibodies last in patients’ systems. This means we don’t know the extent to which natural immunity would occur in the general population. Even with a vaccine, herd immunity could be years away.
Moreover, recovering from the disease does not mean that you can’t spread the virus to others. That’s why a vaccine is crucial to ward off both first infection and re-infection.
Even after people start receiving the vaccine, it will be important to keep up other preventative measures until the pandemic has stopped. The trials only assess the vaccine’s side effects and efficacy in the human body. They do not measure the onset of immunity. This means that people could still be infected while the vaccine takes effect — similar to how a flu vaccine works. In short, people should expect to continue masking and social distancing for a while even after they get the vaccine.
Who Will Be Able to Get the Vaccine?
Although the government has committed to getting the vaccine out as quickly as possible, people who are immunocompromised, elderly, and/or have pre-existing conditions will likely have priority. There also may be limited supplies when the vaccine is first available, simply because vaccines need to be manufactured at high standards.
Once the vaccine is widely available, many people will be able to get the vaccine for free. They may be charged by their healthcare provider for medical service, not for the shot itself, but most insurers will cover this cost. People without health insurance will be able to obtain free shots through community health providers.
With a safe, effective vaccine at hand, we will gain a powerful tool in our efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, past research has helped scientists make and test a vaccine quickly. The FDA and CDC have now approved the Pfizer vaccine. By combining vaccination with masks, social distancing, and other preventative measures, we can finally see an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.