What It Takes to Develop A Coronavirus Vaccine

You don’t have to be a current events junkie to know that there’s a new disease crossing the world: novel Coronavirus 2019, or COVID-19. The numbers speak for themselves: as of March 9, 2020, the WHO reports the virus has spread to almost 100 countries, with 109,577 confirmed cases and 3,809 deaths in total. 

At PicnicHealth, we spend our days working to make healthier lives possible and supporting research by collecting and organizing medical records that can help identify trends and understand the effectiveness of new treatments. Naturally, with coronavirus in the news, we started thinking about a vaccine and what it will take to develop one.

Looking for the basics? There is a lot of information, and misinformation, out there about coronavirus. So, first, let’s start with what you need to know. 


What is coronavirus?

Today’s famous coronavirus is not the only one of its kind. Coronaviruses are actually a large category of viruses that cause illnesses including the common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

Where do coronaviruses come from?

Coronaviruses begin in animals and, in some cases, eventually spread to people as well. A novel coronavirus, as you may have heard COVID-19 referred to in the news, is a strain that has not been previously identified in humans.  

How does coronavirus spread?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. New infections occur after spending an extended time in close proximity to an infected person or being directly coughed or sneezed on. Compared to other illnesses, like the seasonal flu or SARS, coronavirus seems to spread more quickly but generally causes less severe symptoms. 

A person may develop coronavirus within 14 days of being exposed to an infected person.

What are the coronavirus symptoms?

According to the CDC, the symptoms of mild to severe coronavirus are cough, fever, and shortness of breath. The illness becomes deadly when complications occur, including pneumonia in one or both lungs and organ failure. 

How do you prevent coronavirus? 

While there is no vaccine or cure yet, there are several options for reducing your exposure to infected people and staying healthy.

Is there a coronavirus vaccine? 

The answer is no. Not yet, at least. Let’s dive into what it will take to develop one and potential timelines. 

What does it take to make a vaccine?

Typically, the process for making a vaccine involves isolating a part of a virus or bacteria or developing a weakened virus or bacteria that can be administered to people without making them sick. In other words, a vaccine uses a part of a virus or bacteria to trick your immune system to developing immunity or protection from the disease.

The problem with this approach is that it is not designed for speed. A new vaccine first requires testing in animal trials, then on small groups of healthy people to determine that it’s safe. It then moves to larger clinical trials to determine that it’s effective before it can be considered for mass production.

How do clinical trials work, exactly?

In drug development, a clinical trial is typically the step that comes after animal testing but before mass production. The goal is to determine, first on a small group of participants and then on progressively larger groups, whether a treatment is safe and effective for human use. 

Most clinical trials consist of several steps. First, researchers screen for safety on a small group of 100 participants or less. If no health or safety issues arise, they test the treatment on progressively larger groups of participants while looking at factors such as possible side effects, the best prescription amount, and how the treatment interacts with other drugs. Lastly, the treatment will be submitted to the FDA for review.

Trials follow strict guidelines to ensure the safety of their participants and accuracy of their findings, though some risk is inevitable. That’s in part why they take so long—no one wants researchers to cut corners or make mistakes.

Once a vaccine has been deemed effective, producing a vaccine on a large scale is often difficult and expensive. Even expedited, a vaccine wouldn’t be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months.

Where does PicnicHealth come in?

PicnicHealth partners with researchers who are studying new treatments for diseases. While clinical trials are the gold standard for developing new treatments, historically they’ve ignored the vast majority of data in the world—the medical records of real people in their normal course of care. By leveraging these records, known as “real-world data,” we can get information outside of clinical trials and help researchers develop new evidence about diseases and their treatments. For instance, we could use the medical records of people infected with COVID-19 to help doctors and patients understand the signs, symptoms of, and risk factors for infection, particularly severe infection and to understand the real world effects of new treatments. This real world evidence can be used to supplement clinical trials and understand the real burden of this disease—something that can help doctors and patients both today and in the future. However, once researchers have more data, it still takes time to use that data to produce a vaccine, test it for effectiveness and side effects, and produce enough doses to vaccinate large numbers of people.

So, what about a COVID-19 vaccine?

In a recent press conference with President Trump, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (N.I.A.I.D.), said, “A vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable.” 

The earliest we could expect a vaccine to be ready is “in a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.”

What is the vaccine progress so far?

Several groups are already at work on a COVID-19 vaccine, using what we already know about existing coronaviruses, including SARS, MERS, and the common cold. They’re also testing new technologies, such as using parts of the coronavirus genetic code to build a harmless virus that protects against the real deal. 

Others are working on developing therapies that use DNA and RNA to produce immune responses against the virus. The Massachusetts-based drug company Moderna, for example, is already months into producing a “synthetic strand of messenger RNA, or mRNA, designed to convince bodily cells to produce antibodies against the virus.” Moderna is scheduled to begin a healthy-volunteer study next month with the National Institutes of Health.

The good news is that, though a vaccine is not available, the majority of coronavirus cases can be managed effectively with existing medical treatments. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor or a local medical center for more information.

Looking for prevention tips? Read this post by Dr. Dan Drozd, PicnicHealth's resident epidemiologist.

Kelsey Thompson is a writer for PicnicHealth and social media expert.