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SPOTLIGHT

Coronavirus Pandemic

The Race for a Vaccine

The coronavirus has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives and devastated economies worldwide. Scientists say a vaccine could end the pandemic—but they have to develop one first. Will they succeed?  

As You Read, Think About: What problems has the coronavirus pandemic created in the U.S. and other countries?

Scientists are on an urgent mission—one that could change billions of lives. They’re trying to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus, which causes the deadly disease Covid-19. And they’re trying to do it faster than anyone has ever made a vaccine before.  

In the first seven months of this year, the coronavirus infected more than 15.3 million people worldwide and killed more than 625,000. The United States has been one of the hardest-hit nations. As this issue went to press, it accounted for about one-fourth of all cases and deaths. 

Desperate to contain the virus, many countries and U.S. states closed schools and businesses this past spring. Millions of people were urged to stay home. Health experts say such measures helped slow the spread but took a devastating toll on the global economy.

In the U.S., tens of millions of people lost their jobs. More than 100,000 companies went out of business. And more than one-quarter of Americans reported not having dependable access to food. 

Struggling to balance safety with protecting jobs, parts of the U.S. and several other nations let businesses reopen. But some areas saw a huge surge in cases after doing so. 

Experts warn that without a vaccine, that trend will continue. “The virus is still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who leads the World Health Organization. 

Scientists are on an urgent mission that could change billions of lives. They are trying to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus. This virus causes the deadly disease Covid-19. They are trying to do it faster than anyone has ever made a vaccine before.

In the first seven months of this year, the coronavirus infected more than 15.3 million people worldwide. It killed more than 625,000 people. The United States has been one of the hardest-hit nations. As this issue went to press, Covid-19 accounted for about one-fourth of all cases and deaths.

Many countries and U.S. states are desperate to contain the virus. They closed schools and businesses this past spring. Millions of people were urged to stay home. Health experts say such measures helped slow the spread. But the virus still had a terrible effect on the global economy.

In the U.S., tens of millions of people lost their jobs. More than 100,000 companies went out of business. And more than one-quarter of Americans reported not having a dependable way to get food.

Parts of the U.S. and several other nations were struggling to balance safety with protecting jobs. They decided to let businesses reopen. Some areas saw a huge surge in Covid-19 cases after doing so.

Experts warn that without a vaccine, this will continue to happen. “The virus is still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He leads the World Health Organization.

Bing Guan/Reuters

A researcher works on a potential coronavirus vaccine in California. 

Why a Vaccine?

So far, scientists have identified one medication that can speed up recovery from Covid-19 and another that may help the sickest patients. But even more critical is finding something that can prevent people from falling ill in the first place. 

That’s why researchers at companies around the world are working on more than 140 potential coronavirus vaccines. A vaccine could give people immunity, so they would not get sick from the virus—or spread it to others. 

Time is of the essence, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “This is a pandemic unlike any we’ve seen in 100 years,” Adalja says. “This virus will continue to threaten us and disrupt our lives until we develop a vaccine.”

So far, scientists have found one medication that can speed up recovery from Covid-19. Another medication may help the sickest patients. But even more important is finding something that can keep people from getting sick in the first place.

That is why researchers at companies around the world are working on more than 140 potential coronavirus vaccines. A vaccine could give people immunity, so they would not get sick from the virus. They also would not spread it to others.

Time is of the essence, says Amesh Adalja. She is an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “This is a pandemic unlike any we’ve seen in 100 years,” Adalja says. “This virus will continue to threaten us and disrupt our lives until we develop a vaccine.”

A Global Effort

Vaccines have saved millions of people from once-widespread diseases such as smallpox and polio. They teach the immune system how to identify and defeat a particular virus or bacterium, usually by exposing a person to a weakened or inactivated version of it. 

A person who is vaccinated for a particular virus typically cannot get sick from that virus or give it to other people—at least for a certain period of time. As a result, the more people who are vaccinated against it, the less a virus can spread.

Vaccines have saved millions of people from diseases that used to be widespread, such as smallpox and polio. Vaccines teach the immune system how to identify and defeat a particular virus or bacterium. This is usually done by exposing a person to a weakened or inactivated version of it.

Typically, a person who is vaccinated for a particular virus cannot get sick from that virus or give it to other people. That is true for at least for a certain period of time. The more people who are vaccinated against a virus, the less it can spread.

A vaccine could help prevent people from contracting or spreading the deadly coronavirus. 

But developing a vaccine can take years or even decades. The right formula needs to reliably trigger the immune system to react a certain way. Achieving that takes a lot of research and time. Plus, potential vaccines must be tested extensively to ensure they are safe, and people who receive them must be observed over time. The fastest vaccine development—for the mumps—took four years.

With new cases of coronavirus topping 100,000 a day globally in early summer, however, world leaders pushed for a vaccine to be ready by early 2021—a little more than a year after Covid-19 was first discovered. 

That timeline is potentially doable because of the immense resources going into the effort. “Typically, one or two companies are working on a vaccine to prevent [infection by] a particular bacteria or virus,” says Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

But in this case, dozens of companies are working on options to prevent Covid-19. They’re trying every strategy that’s worked for developing vaccines in the past—as well as new methods. And nations are investing billions of dollars in their work.

“When you have this level of interest and resources and expertise and money to make a vaccine, there’s every reason that we can make it more quickly than usual,” Offit says.

But coming up with a vaccine can take years or even decades. The right formula needs to reliably trigger the immune system to react a certain way. Achieving that takes a lot of research and time. Plus, potential vaccines must be tested extensively to ensure they are safe, and people who get them must be observed over time. The fastest vaccine yet developed took four years. It was for the mumps.

However, new cases of coronavirus were topping 100,000 a day globally in early summer. That led world leaders to push for a vaccine to be ready by early 2021. That would be a little more than a year after Covid-19 was first discovered.

That timeline may be possible because immense resources are going into the effort. “Typically, one or two companies are working on a vaccine to prevent infection by a particular bacteria or virus,” says Paul Offit. He is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

But in this case, dozens of companies are working on ways to prevent Covid-19. They are trying every strategy that has worked for developing vaccines in the past. They are trying new methods too. And nations are investing billions of dollars in their work.

“When you have this level of interest and resources and expertise and money to make a vaccine, there’s every reason that we can make it more quickly than usual,” Offit says.

Jeffrey Basinger/Newsday via Getty Images

Overwhelmed medical workers treat Covid-19 patients in a New York hospital this past April.

The Need for Speed

In fact, researchers have already started human testing for several potential coronavirus vaccines. Such tests track whether a vaccine is effective in preventing people from contracting the targeted virus. They also reveal possible side effects and help determine just how much of the vaccine people will need. 

If a vaccine proves successful in several rounds of human testing, it will go to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a safety review. That process can take a year. 

But because of Covid-19’s high death toll, U.S. President Donald Trump and some U.S. lawmakers are urging scientists and the FDA to speed up the work without compromising safety. Some companies are doing so by running multiple rounds of human testing at the same time—rather than seeing whether a vaccine succeeds in one round before moving on to the next. 

In fact, researchers have already started testing several potential coronavirus vaccines on humans. Such tests track whether a vaccine is effective in keeping people from getting the targeted virus. They also reveal possible side effects. The tests can help determine just how much of the vaccine people will need.

If a vaccine proves successful in several rounds of human testing, it will go to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a safety review. That process can take a year.

But because of Covid-19’s high death numbers, U.S. President Donald Trump and some U.S. lawmakers are urging scientists and the FDA to speed up the work while maintaining safety. Some companies are doing so by running multiple rounds of human testing at the same time. Normally they would wait to see whether a vaccine succeeds in one round before moving on to the next.

World leaders have called for a vaccine for coronavirus to be ready by early next year.

The U.S. government is also starting to manufacture vaccines that appear the most promising before their final rounds of testing are finished. That way doses will be ready if they gain approval. 

In addition, some people are calling for the FDA to consider allowing emergency use of promising vaccines before they are officially approved. That would enable people who are at high risk of infection, such as health-care workers treating Covid-19 patients, to get the vaccines sooner. 

But researchers need to be certain that a vaccine has no harmful side effects first, explains Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiology professor at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut. “We’re giving the vaccine to healthy people, so the safety is absolutely critical,” she says.

The U.S. government is also starting to manufacture vaccines that seem to be the most promising before their final rounds of testing are finished. That way doses will be ready if they gain approval.

In addition, some people want the FDA to consider an emergency measure: allowing doctors to use promising vaccines before they are officially approved. That would let people who are at high risk of infection to get the vaccines sooner. Such people include health-care workers treating Covid-19 patients. 

But researchers need to be sure that a vaccine has no harmful side effects first, explains Akiko Iwasaki. She is an immunobiology professor at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut. “We’re giving the vaccine to healthy people, so the safety is absolutely critical,” she says.

Other Risks Abroad

Parwiz/Reuters

A child gets the polio vaccine in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2015.

The wait for a vaccine is affecting more than just the number of Covid-19 infections. Pandemic fears have led many Americans to put off routine doctor visits. For young kids, the visits often include standard immunizations for chicken pox and other childhood diseases. 

Missing those vaccines increases the risk of other disease outbreaks, doctors say, because fewer children will have immunity. “We now have a population of children who are more vulnerable to diseases like measles and whooping cough, which still circulate,” says Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Those fears are even greater in less developed countries. National immunization programs in more than two dozen nations were suspended last spring because of the pandemic—leaving more than 100 million kids vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization. The situation is most dire in countries affected by war or natural disasters. Many of those nations were struggling with measles, cholera, or polio outbreaks even before the current pandemic started. 

The wait for a vaccine is affecting more than just the number of Covid-19 infections. Pandemic fears have led many Americans to put off routine doctor visits. For young kids, the visits often include standard immunizations for chicken pox and other childhood diseases. 

Missing those vaccines increases the risk of other disease outbreaks, doctors say, because fewer children will have immunity. “We now have a population of children who are more vulnerable to diseases like measles and whooping cough, which still circulate,” says Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

Those fears are even greater in less developed countries. National immunization programs in more than two dozen nations were suspended last spring because of the pandemic—leaving more than 100 million kids vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization. The situation is most dire in countries affected by war or natural disasters. Many of those nations were struggling with measles, cholera, or polio outbreaks even before the current pandemic started. 

Final Hurdles

Despite the massive efforts to develop a vaccine, there is no guarantee researchers will succeed, Iwasaki says. Scientists have attempted to find a vaccine for HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, for decades without success. 

But she and many other health experts are optimistic that Covid-19 will be different. Scientists may even end up finding more than one coronavirus vaccine, they say.

Despite the huge efforts to develop a vaccine, there is no guarantee that researchers will succeed, Iwasaki says. Scientists have tried to find a vaccine for HIV for decades without success. HIV is the virus that can cause AIDS.

But Iwasaki and many other health experts are hopeful that Covid-19 will be different. Scientists may even end up finding more than one coronavirus vaccine, they say.

The last major hurdle would be producing billions of doses, plus syringes and other supplies.

If one or more are discovered, the last major hurdle would be manufacturing billions of doses. Companies would need to mass-produce the vaccine, along with vials, syringes, and other supplies. 

Producing enough batches would take time, experts say. “It won’t be available to everyone at the same time,” Adalja says. Instead, the first doses would likely go to health-care workers and then to people who are at high risk of having severe complications from the disease. 

If one or more are discovered, the last major challenge would be manufacturing billions of doses. Companies would need to mass-produce the vaccine, along with vials, syringes, and other supplies.

Producing enough of the vaccine would take time, experts say. “It won’t be available to everyone at the same time,” Adalja says. Instead, the first doses would likely go to health-care workers. Then they would go to people who are at high risk of having severe complications from the disease.

Hope for the Future

Having a coronavirus vaccine could dramatically improve lives around the globe. Students could sit shoulder-to-shoulder in school cafeterias. Families could visit grandparents and other relatives. Friends could gather for birthday parties. And countless deaths could be prevented.

Until then, “the most powerful weapons against this disease are social distancing, face covering, and hand hygiene,” says Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says that’s the best way we can each do our part to stop the coronavirus from spreading. 

Having a coronavirus vaccine could dramatically improve lives around the globe. Students could sit shoulder-to-shoulder in school cafeterias. Families could visit grandparents and other relatives. Friends could gather for birthday parties. And countless deaths could be prevented.

Until then, “the most powerful weapons against this disease are social distancing, face covering, and hand hygiene,” says Robert Redfield. He is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Redfield says that is the best way we can each do our part to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

Write About It! What problems is the coronavirus pandemic creating? What are some potential solutions? How might a vaccine help? Use details from the article to explain your answers.

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