We are neck-deep in a COVID-19 information overload. Constantly barraged by updates every time we unlock our phone screens, there is no escape. We know who’s dying, what politicians are saying, and when they think it will all be over. None of this is new. We’ve been told the same thing for months, reporters regurgitating the same statistics, same headlines, same angled political attacks. But, amidst the chaos, few are asking about a vaccine.
Initially, President Trump said a vaccine should be ready in “a couple months.” Is that even possible? Scientists laugh at the idea of a vaccine being ready in only 60 days, but is it really that hard? Yes, it really is.
Vaccines are seriously underrated. There is little communication between researchers, politicians, and the general public about how vaccines are made, tested and distributed. Yet we are consuming a massive amount of news, specifically news that is underinformed and overreported. Misinformation is being forced upon us at an unprecedented rate and filtering through all that daily content for the proven scientific fact is nearly impossible.
So, here are the facts. Here’s the biology behind the virus. The science behind a vaccine – and why asking for a vaccine in two months is like asking a fish to grow legs and start walking.
Is COVID-19 a virus or a disease?
We sometimes think that having a virus and having a disease are the same thing. This is a huge misconception. A virus causes a disease, and a disease is identified from the symptoms it produces.
Coronavirus is the name of the family of viruses that can cause diseases like MERS, SARS, or the common cold. Within the family of coronaviruses, the specific virus SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease we know as COVID-19.
What do my symptoms mean?
COVID-19 can have symptoms ranging from those of a common cold (coughing, fever) to respiratory illness to symptoms of heart disease. The symptoms (or lack of symptoms) that an individual present is based on their specific immune response, which is why symptoms of COVID-19 vary from person-to-person.
Having symptoms means your body is healing. Coughing is your body’s method of ejecting the pathogen by brute force; fever is essentially you killing the pathogen by heat; inflammation is actually the increase of blood flow to the place a pathogen enters, bringing along particles of the immune system that aid in its response.
When a virus enters your body, your body becomes a battleground. Your immune system is fighting the invader, and your dry cough, fever, and fatigue show that your body is working hard to win the battle.
What does it mean to have disease immunity?
When something enters your body that’s not supposed to be there, your immune system acts as a microscopic SWAT team, identifying the suspect and taking it out of commission. These ‘suspect’ pathogens can be anything from bacteria to a virus or even a toxin. But what does it mean to have an immune response, and what really is immunity?
Well, you have two types of immunity: innate and adaptive.
Consider this: you have a key ring. When you got the key ring, a few keys came with – one to your house, one to your garage, etc. This is your innate immune system – your body’s first line of defense that include natural barriers like skin and hair, as well as preexisting cellular responses.
Now, go back to the key ring. Let’s say you bought a dozen new keys, one of which goes to your bike lock. None of your keys are labeled, so you have to work your way through the set and figure out which key matches the bike lock. Once you do, you label the key so that next time you want to unlock your bike, you can do that much more quickly and easily than the first time. This is your adaptive immune system, and it’s what we associate with immunity. Your new keys are your body’s antibodies. Each key matches a different lock just as each antibody recognizes a specific antigen (a molecule that comes from a virus). After you find the key that matches your bike lock, you label it; similarly, your antibodies remember which antigen they pair.
This is what we consider immunity. The second time you are exposed to that virus, your body quickly recognizes that virus and eliminates it, often before you have any symptoms of the disease.
What is a vaccine?
What is a vaccine?
The goal of a vaccine is to introduce your body to a pathogen under controlled conditions so that your body can remember the pathogen and develop immunity. Basically, it’s like someone giving you a labeled key so you don’t have to go through the hassle of figuring out what it unlocks.
When you get vaccinated, you are injected with a small amount of the dead or weakened virus. This way, your immune system can recognize and remember the virus. This way, next time that virus gets into your body – whether you know about it or not – your body will fight it off before you develop any symptoms. Vaccines allow you to develop immunity to a disease without actually having to get the disease.
Vaccines are powerful medical tools because they prevent disease.
How are vaccines made and tested?
First, researchers have to produce the antigen of a specific virus. Scientists will grow as much virus as possible in lab cells and then release the virus from the cells to isolate the antigens. Sometimes, an adjuvant like aluminum salts may be added, which simply enhances the vaccine’s effectiveness and boosts the body’s response. Stabilizers may also be added to keep the vaccine active longer. Preservatives ensure that multi-dose vaccines are used safely. Finally, vaccines must be distributed. This means that all the contents are uniformly mixed, put into vials or syringe packages, sealed with sterile stoppers or plungers, and sent off for widespread distribution. Vaccines can even be freeze-dried and then rehydrated when they are about to be administered.
Vaccine development also includes testing. And this is the part that’s really tricky because health care professionals want to make sure a vaccine is safe for people before they allow widespread distribution – they don’t want any surprises. Testing can take a long time and happens in a multi-step process regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The sponsor of a vaccine is placed under intense investigation and must ensure the vaccine’s safety before being given any sort of licensing. After licensing, pre-clinical and clinical trials test the safety of the vaccine. The trials start with testing on animals and then people, with each phase determining the safety and effective dosages of the vaccine. The real challenge is making sure vaccines are safe and effective in all people and that side effects don’t occur in a specific health demographic.
Because vaccines are intended to work over extended periods of time, it takes time to make sure a vaccine is safe and effective. In fact, human testing alone can take up to a year.
For more information on vaccine testing, visit the CDC’s Vaccine Testing and Approval Process webpage.
Why is the COVID-19 vaccine taking so long?
The greatest time-constraint for a COVID-19 vaccine is testing. Animal testing for SARS, a related disease, has increased survival rates but didn’t actually prevent infection (which is the whole goal of a vaccine). Also, some vaccines can have side effects, like lung damage, that have long-term impacts on our health. Safety is the number one concern of medical professionals when looking for a COVID-19 vaccine. Why distribute a vaccine that prevents infection from COVID-19, but also causes complications that decrease your quality and length of life?
Testing a COVID-19 vaccine means following strict procedures, which takes time. Animal trials typically take three to six months. Human trials can take a year. And this is all if the vaccine works. If it is not proven to be safe and effective, it must be altered, or a new vaccine must be developed, and the testing process has to start all over.
We do not have any sort of preexisting immunity to COVID-19, which means a vaccine must be extremely stable. Two vaccinations, three to four weeks apart, may be necessary to build immunity. And vaccines don’t guarantee immediate immunity. Your body needs time to recognize antigens and then produce and store antibodies. This can take a week or longer.
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Luckily, we are in an age where science is advanced and medicine is revolutionary. Public health professionals know a lot about what causes a disease and how they are spread. They also know a lot about what prevents them. The best thing we can do is exercise public safety standards. Wash your hands, cover your mouth, stay inside. Wait. Medical experts are working hard to find a cure.
In fact, the vaccine process has been moving at an unprecedented rate. Already, several labs have developed vaccines that in the human testing phase. Hopefully, we will have a vaccine by next fall. Nevertheless, there is a lot that is unknown. We are still at the mercy of our leaders and how much they listen to public health experts.
This is going to be a process, and we are all involved. The least we can do is understand the science.
CDC, What’s in Vaccines?
The History of Vaccines, How Vaccines Are Made
Mayo Clinic, COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccine: Get the facts
UChicago Medicine, Why doesn’t the flu vaccine work sometimes?