Fact or Fiction: COVID-19 Vaccine Edition

After almost a year of social distancing, isolation, quarantine and masks, there is finally hope that these realities won’t have to remain the “new normal” for much longer. As word spreads about possible vaccines, here is what you need to know.

According to the New York Times, there are currently 58 vaccines undergoing clinical trials on humans, and more than 87 preclinical vaccines that are under investigation in animals. 

The SARS-CoV-2 genome was first mapped in January with the outflux of cases in China. Vaccine trials then began in March and now, almost nine months later, more than 10 vaccines are in their final stages of testing. 

For a vaccine to be approved and widely distributed, it must go through a series of phases. Before phase one is the preclinical stage. Scientists will inject the vaccine into cells and administer these cells to mice or monkeys to determine if the vaccine invokes an immune response. Following the preclinical stage, scientists implement phase one. In this phase, the vaccine is distributed to a small group of healthy people to verify safety and correct dosage. In phase two, the vaccine is given to a larger and more diverse group of people, including individuals at high risk. Finally,  phase three consists of dispersal of the vaccine to thousands of people and a comparison of these results to those given a placebo to ensure effectiveness and safety. 

The following vaccine companies involve adding a dose of COVID-19 genes into the nucleic acid (using DNA and RNA) in order to gain immunity: Pfizer, BioNTech, CureVac and Moderna. Most of these companies have already guaranteed millions of vaccines to various countries. In fact, the UK has already declared emergency use for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. 

Other forms of vaccines include viral vector vaccines — viruses that are manipulated to carry Coronavirus. Companies such as CanSino Biologics, Gamaleya Research Institute, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are all producing viral vector vaccines and are currently within phases two or three of their trials. Countries such as Russia and China have both approved selective viral vaccines for limited or early use.

Additionally, there are protein-based vaccines that involve injections of COVID-19 proteins with no genetic information. Companies such as Novavax and Medicago are in the process of developing this type of vaccine. 

Moreover, the company SinoPharm is working on an Inactivated Coronavirus Vaccine which is created by a weakened or inactivated coronavirus.  Sinopharm is in the process of testing vaccines developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products and Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, which are approved for limited use in the UAE and China. 

Some scientists have decided to pursue an alternative route to combating COVID, deciding to test if pre-existing vaccines for other disease prevention can also prevent the disease. The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia is in phase three of testing to see if the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin tuberculosis vaccine could be used in the fight against COVID-19.

The European Union, USA and many other countries have already invested billions of dollars in research and pre-ordering of the many vaccines currently being tested and further developed.

Some people have expressed concern with the rapid nature of the release of these vaccines as it normally takes scientists years to develop a safe vaccine. According to The Washington Post, the average vaccine development time is 10.7 years with a few notable vaccines taking as long as 30 years to gain approval. 

Pre-med UF student Samantha Sowell expressed “I hope that an effective COVID vaccine will help everything return to normal, but I am a bit skeptical about potential side effects as well.”

However, Stephen M. Hahn,  physician and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, released a reassuring statement to the American public.  “I can attest that every FDA resource has been, and will continue to be, at the ready to facilitate clinical testing programs and to review clinical data and manufacturing facilities. I can further provide assurances that any vaccine authorized for widespread use will meet the appropriate standards for quality, safety and efficacy.”

UF freshman Reagan Harwood reflected, “I am eager to know when the vaccine will be available to the general public and the stages the government takes in delivering the vaccine. I will happily take the vaccine as long as it is scientifically backed up by multiple doctors and has gone through proper trials.” 

Hopefully, the developing vaccines will be proven effective and safe. With FDA approval and mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, there is hope our lives really can return back to normal.