As coronavirus cases continue to rise both nationally and globally, it’s more important than ever that we keep our distance from each other and wear our masks. However, promising news has arrived as companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and most recently AstraZeneca have announced better-than-expected results for a coronavirus vaccine. Though vaccines usually require years of research and testing, researchers are rushing to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine by next year in light of the pandemic. Here’s what you can expect when that happens.
How would a COVID-19 vaccine work? A coronavirus vaccine will succeed by stimulating the immune system to produce effective antibodies against the virus. All the vaccines currently in development work in this way, by inducing an immune response to the spike protein of the virus. This provides the immune system with instructions on how to successfully fight the infection. Both of the vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer are genetic vaccines, meaning they work by delivering one or more of the coronavirus’s own genes into our own cells to provoke an immune response. Both vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) encoding the spike protein. The AstraZeneca vaccine, on the other hand, is a viral vector vaccine. These types of vaccines contain viruses engineered to carry coronavirus genes thereby stimulating an immune response.
How do clinical trials for the vaccine work?
To ensure all vaccines are both safe and effective, they go through five stages of development. In the first stage, preclinical testing, the vaccine is given to animals to see if it produces an immune response.
In Phase 1, researchers administer the vaccine to a small number of people in order to test for safety, ensure correct dosage, and to confirm that it stimulates the immune system.
In Phase 2, hundreds of people are split into groups, such as children and the elderly, and given the vaccine. Researchers see if the vaccine acts differently within these various groups, while further ensuring the vaccine’s safety and ability to stimulate the immune system.
Thousands of people volunteer to be included in a double blind controlled study. These patients are split up in two categories, one group receiving the vaccine and the other receiving a placebo. This occurs in Phase 3, and researchers analyze how many of these patients become infected compared with patients who received a placebo. It is this stage that verifies whether or not the vaccines being tested will protect against the coronavirus, while revealing any possible side effects. The FDA has asked for evidence that vaccines protect at least 50 percent of those who receive it.
In Stage 4, clinical data is reviewed to make sure the vaccine is safe and effective. In the final stage of approval, regulators in each country review the trail results and decide whether to approve the vaccine or not. In situations like the current pandemic, vaccines can receive emergency authorization before getting formal approval.
When will I be able to get the vaccine? Producing an effective vaccine that is safe for use is a complex process that makes definite timelines difficult to predict. However, experts believe that if everything goes according to plan - which includes not only vaccine development but distribution as well - select populations in high-risk groups may be able to get vaccinated this year. Most other Americans will likely not have access to the vaccine until February at the very earliest, and more likely July or August.
But despite the promising evidence and effectiveness of some of these newly developed vaccines, experts continue to urge Americans to continue physical distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks. As the holidays and colder temperatures approach, we will need to continue to stay safe by staying home until a vaccine can be approved and distributed.