COVID-19 Vaccines Are Coming, but They’re Not What You Think

COVID-19 Vaccines Are Coming, but They’re Not What You Think

  • These novel approaches could fail in many ways.

All new drugs that come into development are long shots, but some are longer than others. The vaccines most imminently starting trials for COVID-19 range from the promising but speculative to the highly promising but ethically fraught.

On Monday, Kaiser Permanente began soliciting volunteers to be injected with a mystery substance that will, if it works and does not cause unintended harm, release us all from quarantine purgatory when it becomes widely available in a reported 12 to 18 months. The trial is a partnership between Moderna, a Boston biotech company, and the National Institutes of Health, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that no pharmaceutical trial’s results have ever been awaited as breathlessly (if you’ll pardon the respiratory simile) as this one’s.

Moderna did not reply to a request for comment. The type of vaccine it is pursuing has never been approved by regulators, and like all experimental drugs, it could fail in many different ways.

Nearly every vaccine currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration introduces foreign proteins into a healthy but nonimmune individual. The body’s immune system finds those proteins, which are often part of a pathogen (the measles virus, say), and then quickly learns to recognize them. When the actual virus arrives, your immune system has already been introduced to the offending proteins and knows how to annihilate any living thing that bears them. The measles never stands a chance.