AUSTIN (KXAN) — With coronavirus cases on the rise around the world, many people are asking: when will there be a vaccine?
Right now, there’s no cure or vaccine to prevent this strain of Wuhan coronavirus, but different groups of scientists have been making strides towards the creation of one.
President Donald Trump said Monday that his administration has asked pharmaceutical companies to “accelerate” efforts to create a coronavirus vaccine.
In a separate press conference, Vice President Mike Pence said, “There may well be a vaccine going to clinical trials within the next six weeks.”
Experts in Texas told KXAN on Monday they estimate the process could take at least a year.
“It’s much more likely to be in 18-24 month time frame,” Dr. Jason McLellan, Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Texas, said.
Before a vaccine can be distributed to the public, there are several steps:
- Conduct pre-clinical testing on animals
- Manufacture initial vaccine batches, based on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)
- Begin clinical trials: Phase I, II, III
- Get FDA approval
- Begin large-scale production and distribution
McLellan said animal trials are already going on, but clinical trials with volunteers take the most time.
- Phase I: test for safety in a small number of healthy adults (tens of people)
- Phase II: test for safety and efficacy (hundreds of people)
- Phase III: use placebo or control group to test efficacy (thousands of people)
“Those steps cannot be sped up too much,” McLellan said. “We need to make sure that anything we inject into millions of people is going to be safe and is working as intended and preventing the infection.”
He has been studying coronavirus for years, since the SARS outbreak in 2002. As soon as reports of the new coronavirus surfaced, his team began mapping a “spike protein,” the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells.
He said their map will help other scientists create various types of interventions, like a vaccine, antibodies or drugs.
“We’ve been disseminating these structures to people all over the world,” McLellan said. “The company Moderna has already shipped an initial lot of their vaccine encoding for our stabilized spike protein to our collaborators at the NIH.”
He said Dr. Barney Graham at the NIH Vaccine Research Center is now carrying out the development of a vaccine, using their map.
Meanwhile, his group is working with several different companies to try to isolate antibodies from people who have been infected with coronavirus. He said this will help them determine which antibodies could actually help prevent infection.
“Maybe healthcare workers who are going into a zone where there is infection, you could give these people antibodies,” McLellan said, “or someone who is already infected, you could give them antibodies to decrease the severity of their infection.”
“This will take time”
Another Texas group is making strides towards prevention and intervention.
Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Co-Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, said his group has developed a prototype vaccine for SARS.
Since this new Wuhan coronavirus is similar (Hotez said 80%), they hope their vaccine could cross-protect against both diseases.
His group has applied for proposals to move their vaccine into the clinical testing phase, but they are still waiting for federal appropriations and funding.
“The bad news — or the not so good news — is clinical testing is going to take a lot of time. You have to show that that vaccine is both effective at preventing the virus and also safe,” Hotez said.
He said federal funding will speed things up for groups like his, but it’s really for people’s safety that there’s no “quick fix.” He said testing has revealed that certain respiratory virus vaccines can actually make things worse.
“I’m almost certain we will not have a vaccine available in time for this particular epidemic, unfortunately, here in the United States,” Hotez said. “The hardest thing to to do is to advance new technologies for a brand new virus in the middle of a public health crisis.”
Hotez said he’ll be testifying to the U.S. House Science Committee on Thursday in Washington to answer questions about “where we are at.”
This is the third major epidemic from a “beta-coronavirus.”
“We had SARS in 2003, MERS in 2012 and now this one. I’d say it’s a good bet that this will become the ‘new normal,’ and that we should get ready for a new coronavirus every few years,” Hotez said.
That’s why both McLellan and Hotez said to the ultimate goal would be to create a “universal vaccine” that protects against all coronaviruses, including ones we haven’t seen emerge.
“Researchers are trying to do something similar for flu, but it has been very difficult given the variation of flu viruses,” McLellan said.
McLellan said a universal coronavirus vaccine would also be “difficult,” but it’s early in the development stages.
With a vaccine months or even a year away, Hotez said the most urgent need now is “good, reliable” testing.
“As the number of patients starts to ramp up, we are going to need to have physicians to have access to the test very quickly, that we could test large numbers of people,” Hotez said. “We’re not there yet.”
Right now, the tests have to be shipped to a laboratory to be evaluated.
The only laboratory in Texas currently testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus, is in Lubbock at Texas Tech University. The Texas Department of State Health Services said the lab has only tested one or two cases, which have come back negative.
Chris Van Deusen, the Director of Media Relations with the DSHS, said on Monday the remaining nine public health labs in the state should have the ability to test later this week or next.