The race for the vaccine
As we write this article, 35 pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions around the world are in a race to discover the vaccine for COVID-19. Four of them have already completed their trials on animals with one entering the first phase of human trials.
The structure of the virus
Luckily, the nCOV-19 is a positive-stranded RNA virus, a structure scientists are familiar with. The nCOV-19 also shares almost 80% similarity with the virus responsible for the 2002-SARS outbreak. All of these makes the path towards making the vaccine easy for scientists and researchers. But things start to get complicated from here on.
The process of coming up with a new vaccine is tricky and lengthy. It often takes months, if not years, for a new vaccine to be perfected completely. Most of the vaccines we rely upon today took at least five to fifteen years to be perfected. The answer to why it takes such a tedious amount of time to come up with the vaccine lies in the steps which need to be followed to discover a vaccine.
After a prototype is discovered in the lab, which may take anywhere from a few days to a few months, the vaccine is put on animal trials to be tested on rats, guinea pigs and apes. Most prototypes fail at this stage. If the vaccine shows no adverse effect in the animals, it's then passed on for step two, human trials.
The human trials are done in three phases. In the first phase, the vaccine is tested on a few dozen healthy adult candidates. In the second phase it is tested on a few hundred in the affected areas, and in the third, the vaccine is tested on a few thousand candidates in the affected areas. Each of these phases can last up to six to eight months. If the vaccine shows no adverse effect and successfully creates the right immune responses in a large sample of human bodies, it's then passed on for approval by WHO and the FDA. While the approval process goes on, the vaccine is constantly studied and tested by regulators for flaws and corrections.
Once approved by the authorities, the vaccine is then sent for mass commercial production, which requires a large amount of funding among other necessities. Commercial production of vaccine is hardly the end of the story. Before it reaches to the doorsteps of every country in the world where coronavirus has spread, which stands at 201, as of 31st March 2020, a year or two may pass easily.
The good news
Despite everything, there's a glimmering ray of hope as the FDA has given many pharmaceuticals the go-ahead for conducting animal and human trials simultaneously, to speed up the process. Many organisations have stepped up to fund the research. Norway-based CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has announced $2 billion of new funding for organizations researching the vaccine. Pharmaceuticals like Inovio, GlaxoSmithKline and Moderna, who have completed the first human trial, have already received CEPI's fundings.
After completing each and every step and thousands of tests to make it the most perfect weapon against the virus, the new vaccine may be available to us in 18 months, a figure provided by Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to The Guardian last month. Like it or not, the coronavirus is here to stay for a while.