Months left to find a coronavirus vaccine, until then science must be separated from propaganda
It is possible that in the last hours you have read the "news" coming from the Far East: things like "China claims to have successfully developed a coronavirus vaccine" or "China claims to have" successfully "developed a vaccine against the coronavirus. " In the midst of quarantine and while the number of infections and deaths continues to rise, good news is needed. Unfortunately, it is too good to be true.
No, China has not successfully developed a coronavirus vaccine. China is going to start Phase I of human testing of a vaccine. This phase will last until the end of the year and will tell us if it is safe. Then there are three more phases to confirm its effectiveness, which are better than the alternatives and do not cause side effects. Obviously, it is very possible that in circumstances like the current times, the times will be maximized, but it is practically impossible that there will be a useful and safe vaccine before next year in China.
Neither China nor the United States, actually. Because China's announcement, released late on Tuesday, comes just after the United States announced Sunday that it was ready to start clinical trials of its own coronavirus vaccine. There are currently more than 30 companies, research centers and universities working against the clock to develop a vaccine and everyone knows that there are many months left before reaching the end of the road. So what's going on?
How is a vaccine developed?
Despite what we usually see in the epidemic cinema, creating a vaccine is not easy. Unlike ordinary medications, vaccines work by "teaching" the immune system to recognize pathogens and preparing it to attack them. In this case, that means that we need to identify parts of the virus that are stable and characteristic enough that the body can easily identify them.
In many cases, like the flu, the virus mutates very quickly and the only solution we have is to update the vaccine almost in real time. In others, infectious agents are slow and stable, and vaccines have a very long shelf life. Be that as it may, the "normal" process to develop a normal vaccine can take up to 15 years.
After all, vaccines are products of mass use in healthy populations. Not only must they create immunity to the virus, but they must be free of any unwanted side effects. According to the WHO, only 1 to 2 billion doses are made each year of the influenza A vaccine. Any problem with the vaccine would affect thousands of people and create, in itself, a public health problem.
However, in cases of diseases such as Ebola, SARS or COVID, the deadlines are tightened and all technical methods are put in place to create immunity in populations and control epidemic (or pandemic) outbreaks. In this case, we already know that several universities have created genetically modified mice to use in initial tests and several research groups are testing with similar vaccines or simple approaches. If all goes well, in 12 or 18 months the vaccine will be ready. If everything goes fine.
A (scientific / communicative) race to get the vaccine
For almost five years, the US and China have been locked in a particular "race" for supremacy in the world of scientific research. Countries like Russia, Japan or the European Union) have also wanted to enter the fray in one way or another, but for various reasons they have not succeeded.
The coronavirus crisis has also become part of this "scientific career". From the outset, and not surprisingly, CHina has led the research on SARS-CoV-2 and its disease. In 23 days, the Asian giant was able not only to identify the virus, but also sequenced it, designed tests to allow its diagnosis and began collecting clinical, therapeutic and epidemiological data that have been extremely useful in recent months.
However, the crown jewel of the scientific approach to the coronavirus appears to be two elements: the vaccine and the treatment. Looking for the first and getting ahead (at least) at the communicative level, on Monday the US government announced its first trial and China, hours later, announced its own. The good news is that this competition appears to be stimulating scientific systems to reach the vaccine as quickly as possible; The bad news is that this "race" is also communicative and that, as we have seen these hours, will expose us to hasty announcements, misinterpretations and propaganda.
Image | Trust Tru Katsande