Since COVID-19 first surfaced in Wuhan China, about one year ago, the world has been plunged into a waiting game. Waiting for what, you might ask? Waiting for real answers, real solutions to this ever-evolving situation.
In a worldwide race against time, thousands of scientists from all over the world plunged into hardwork-mode, working tirelessly, to find a cure and/or a vaccine. To enable them design vaccines, scientists embarked on experiment upon experiment, to unravel the enigma that was SARS-CoV-2. They needed to understand SARS-CoV-2’s viral properties and key aspects of its biology. Furthermore, they needed to uncover the exact mechanism of infection and evasion of the immune system, as well as potential vaccine and drug targets. These targets were to be the starting points of the vaccine design process.
At the moment, there are at least fifty active vaccine research efforts in countries across the globe, with different targets and proposed mechanisms. With these concurrent efforts, different vaccines are at different phases, as shown in the “COVID-19 Vaccine tracker“.
However, there finally seems to be a light in the tunnel of darkness that has trailed the arrival of COVID-19. United States’ based drug-maker Pfizer announced recently that it had developed a vaccine with an over 90% efficacy rate. This vaccine, which was developed in conjunction with German company BioNTech, is based on the use of a synthetic messenger RNA, to activate the immune system. Days later, another pharmaceutical company, Moderna also announced that it has designed a vaccine with over 95.4% efficacy, also based on a synthetic messenger RNA. In coming weeks, results are expected for a vaccine designed via a collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca. For these vaccines, adequate peer reviewed publications, with clear scientific data to back up their success stories are also expected.
However, in reality, this news of vaccines may not be the end of the world’s COVID-19 woes. At least, not yet. Why? Well vaccines are not magic instruments. Between the initial design of vaccines and their rollout for use, there are multiple steps, each of which may take anywhere between weeks to months to complete. The steps include: preclinical trials, phase 1 safety trials, phase 2 expanded trials, phase 3 efficiency trials, early or limited approval, which precedes the approval process by the appropriate administrative bodies. These phases are all important, to ensure that the final vaccine is both effective and safe for use.
Though in some cases, some phases can be combined, in order to speed up the vaccine development process, the process does not progress until specific efficacy and safety criteria are met. So, despite the progress of these vaccines, and the other vaccines that are currently at different phases including Zydus’s DNA based vaccine, CureVac’s mRNA based vaccine, Imperial College, London/Morningside’s self amplifying RNA vaccine, Angese’s DNA based vaccine , we are still a very long way from being free or safe. This is only a promise of sunshine, not sunshine itself.
The success of vaccines, and other news of people who have been infected a second time by SARS-CoV-2, raise questions about how vaccine administration will need to be arranged, if they are to provide the needed protection. Overall, with each new answer that comes, more questions follow. So as far as COVID-19 and vaccines are concerned, scientists and by extension, the world are still several questions away from answers. Therefore, for the time being, the solution to fighting this pandemic, remains sticking to the laid-out guidelines. With the arrival of the second wave in many parts of the world, including here in Canada, using face-masks, hand sanitizers and all the other guidelines remain the only answers we can trust for now.