As Covid-19 has rapidly spread around the world there has been a mad scramble to find a vaccine.
On January 10, China shared the new coronavirus’ genetic sequence. The rapid genetic sequencing and open publication of the virus by Chinese scientists was a boon for researchers who have been working against the clock to produce a preventive jab, pill or potion.
Although the search for a vaccine is well underway, doctors are currently pinning their hopes on drugs already being used to treat other diseases that they are repurposing for coronavirus patients.
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A vaccine for worldwide use isn’t likely to be ready until the beginning of next year at the earliest.
Once the vaccine is ready for use, it would probably be given to what public health experts call “key populations” first – health workers, vulnerable groups and the contacts of affected patients – before any nationwide mass vaccination programme took place.
Alongside vaccine development, doctors are trialling existing drugs for viruses such as Ebola, malaria and HIV. Early results seem promising but, until full clinical trials have been concluded, doctors cannot be certain that the drugs are effective.
How long does a vaccine take to make?
One crucial advance aiding vaccine research is the development of an organisation called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), set up in response to the lack of scientific progress when Ebola ripped through West Africa in 2014 to 2016.
CEPI’s mission is to rapidly respond to epidemics by providing the money to researchers to develop vaccines.
CEPI is already developing at least eight potential vaccines for Covid-19, and in January announced that a vaccine for Covid-19 would be ready for testing by the end of May.
Researchers are confident they’ll have at least one vaccine ready within 18 months. That would be the fastest humans have ever gone from seeing a brand new pathogen to developing a vaccine against it.
Who is working on a coronavirus vaccine?
British scientists are competing with dozens of laboratories around the world to be the first to develop a drug. In mid-March, scientists at Public Health England said that trials of a vaccine could begin within the next month.
In mid-January, a team at Imperial College London started developing a vaccine and are working at record pace. They took just 14 days to get from the genetic sequencing of the virus to generating the trial vaccine in the laboratory.
In America, the US government had committed to a $1 billion (£800m) Covid-19 vaccine deal with titan Johnson & Johnson, co-financing research through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda).
Human trials on the vaccine have already started in the US – breaking records for the speed with which such trials can get off the ground. Healthy volunteers in America are being given the new-generation “genetic hack” after it bypassed standard animal testing as part of a highly accelerated process.
Why does it take so long to create a vaccine?
The biggest hurdle for vaccine development is manufacture and distribution at scale – it is estimated that CEPI needs at least another $2 billion in funding. The UK has already committed £250 million of aid to CEPI, the biggest donation of any country.
Hindering scientists’ attempts to develop a vaccine, Covid-19 has also mutated into two strains, one which appears to be far more aggressive.
And health experts have warned that the virus could hit Britain in “multiple waves”, which has led to fears that some vaccines might not work on mutated strains.