But will everyone be able to get it?
On January 11, a Chinese team reported online the RNA genome sequence of a novel coronavirus causing a strange new pneumonia-like disease in Wuhan, China. Within 48 hours, scientists at Moderna, a Massachusetts biotechnology company, had the entire genome synthesized. Remarkably, about 60 days later, the company, in collaboration with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, began a human Phase 1 clinical trial of an RNA vaccine.
Since COVID-19 began its rapid spread across the world, scientists have worked with remarkable speed at trying to understand the virus—how it causes disease; how it spreads; why some people are asymptomatic while others die; how to develop new, or repurpose old, drugs; and how to create a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible. The COVID-19 story illustrates the tremendous capacity and speed of science in the 21st century, and the power of international collaboration. I am a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, charged by the government to recommend COVID-19 vaccines that the country should purchase for its population. I am optimistic that the world will have a safe and effective vaccine by the end of this year or early 2021. However, I worry that people everywhere won’t have equal access to it.
The history of vaccinology goes back to the late 1700s when Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, for smallpox, a turning point in the war between microbes and humans. A great triumph of modern science, vaccines rely entirely on the activation of the body’s own protective immunological mechanisms. Vaccines prevent disease, are inexpensive, are easy to deliver, and have long-lasting effects. They are also the sole medicine that benefits not only vaccinated individuals but also those around them by interrupting the pathogen’s transmission within the community.
Back in the spring, most scientists, including Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the U.S., predicted that a vaccine would take at least 12–18 months to deliver. That time frame was viewed as wildly optimistic, even reckless, given the more typical four to six, sometimes as many as 10 to 15, years that vaccine development typically requires. Today, most scientists working in infectious disease, including Fauci, are saying the United States will know whether there’s an effective COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year or early 2021, and one could become available by the end of 2021. That incredible speed is not being accomplished at the expense of safety; rather, it is the result of unprecedented collaboration across borders, academia, and industry.
The ideal vaccine will do three things: protect individuals from becoming infected, prevent life-altering effects for those who do get COVID-19, and block transmission of the virus to others. The vaccine does not need to be 100 percent effective at all three to be a powerful addition to our defenses against this virus.