The Search for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Marissa Schimpf

A scanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (Courtesy of the NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories).

COVID-19 has entirely changed the course of the past ten months for Earth’s human population. In the United States alone, tens of millions of citizens have lost their jobs, companies have shut down, and the idea of standing within six feet of a stranger is laughable. Since the first outbreaks of the disease in late 2019, a potential COVID-19 vaccine that could prevent this disease has been on the minds of many. 

To understand what is needed in a COVID-19 vaccine, it is vital to understand the disease itself.  COVID-19, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-CoV-2, is a strain of a coronavirus, and coronaviruses cause about a third of all common colds and can affect animals as well. This specific type of coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads through droplets released into the air and flies a few feet before landing on a surface. Because of the mobility of this virus, social distancing has proven effective in minimizing infection rates. 

While social distancing is always an option, a vaccine would be a much more convenient solution to the health threats posed by COVID-19.  Essentially, a vaccine injects either a virus in a weakened state or some genetic code of the virus into the patient, causing the patient’s immune system to react as though it is being attacked by the full-strength virus. After the immune system has realized that this virus is not going to harm it, the exact defense mechanism used by the cells has been recorded by white blood cells that can readily reproduce antibodies to fight the virus, otherwise known as memory cells. 

In most circumstances, vaccines take many years to perfect. However, the push for a COVID-19 vaccine is significantly more urgent than usual. Therefore, numerous companies have been searching for one that could ideally be ready before next year; however, a vaccine will most likely be released later in 2021. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccines must undergo three phases of clinical development before they are available to the general public. Phase one usually lasts for a few months: it consists of checking a vaccine’s safety in a small group of people and determining if any immune response occurs within the patients. The second phase can take a few years: a larger group of people who may have the disease or who are susceptible to it are tested. The third and final phase generally lasts around four years, as tens of thousands of people of varying ages and health are tested. Including the necessary time for research and manufacturing, this process often takes ten to fifteen years to complete. Therefore, creating a vaccine only a year and a half after the initial outbreaks of COVID-19 is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, dozens of companies are working tirelessly to find a safe vaccine in record time, and some companies appear to have promising results. These companies have already begun phase three testing even though the search for a vaccine began only about nine months ago. 

Two organizations currently in the lead for creating a COVID-19 vaccine are the American companies Pfizer and Moderna. Both companies are very open about their testing process and the current status of their vaccines. On September 12, Pfizer stated that it began stage three by testing 44,000 people. Half of these people received the vaccine, and the other half received an injection of saltwater to account for the placebo effect. If the results of this test prove the vaccine to be effective, some people could be vaccinated as early as this year, although the public may not receive vaccines until February at the earliest. Results from this test will be announced over the next few months, starting in October. 

Moderna, a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, is also beginning phase three by testing a group of 30,000 people. Like Pfizer, Moderna is injecting half the patients with saltwater, and the other half with the vaccines. The results for Moderna’s tests are expected to be announced by the end of 2020. However, depending on their results, Moderna’s vaccine will likely be unavailable until well into 2021. While nine companies are performing large-scale testing, none have been nearly as transparent about their plans as Moderna or Pfizer. The goal of the COVID-19 vaccine is for it to be at least fifty percent effective, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The seven other companies testing vaccines on large groups have not said much, except for the British biotechnology company AstraZeneca, which plans to release more detailed information about their vaccine soon. 

There are still many unknown factors regarding a potential COVID-19 vaccine; ideally, most questions will be answered in the months to come. Hopefully, a safe vaccine can be released as soon as possible, which would be instrumental to return life to the times preceding the emergence of this virus.

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