The World Health Organisation said this week it may be 18 months before a vaccine against the coronavirus is publicly available.
Let’s explore why, even with global efforts, it might take this long.
By late January, the virus was successfully grown outside China for the first time, by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, a critically important step. For the first time, researchers in other countries had access to a live sample of the virus.
Using this sample, researchers at CSIRO’s high-containment facility (the Australian Animal Health Laboratory) in Geelong, could begin to understand the characteristics of the virus, another crucial step in the global effort towards developing a vaccine.
Vaccines have historically taken two to five years to develop. But with a global effort, and learning from past efforts to develop coronavirus vaccines, researchers could potentially develop a vaccine in a much shorter time.
Here’s why we need to work together
No single institution has the capacity or facilities to develop a vaccine by itself. There are also more stages to the process than many people appreciate.
First, we must understand the virus’s characteristics and behaviour in the host (humans). To do this, we must first develop an animal model.
Next, we must demonstrate that potential vaccines are safe and can trigger the right parts of the body’s immunity, without causing damage. Then we can begin pre-clinical animal testing of potential vaccines, using the animal model.
Vaccines that successfully pass pre-clinical testing can then be used by other institutions with the capacity to run human trials.
Where these will be conducted, and by whom, has yet to be decided. Generally, it is ideal to test such vaccines in the setting of the current outbreak.
Finally, if a vaccine is found to be safe and effective, it will need to pass the necessary regulatory approvals. And a cost-effective way of making the vaccine will also need to be in place before the final vaccine is ready for delivery.
Each of these steps in the vaccine development pipeline faces potential challenges.
Here are some of the challenges we face
The international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has engaged our team in those first two steps: determining the characteristics of the current virus, then pre-clinical testing of potential vaccines.
While Melbourne’s Doherty Institute and others have been instrumental in isolating the novel coronavirus, the next step for us is growing large amounts of it so our scientists have enough to work with. This involves culturing the virus in the lab (encouraging it to grow) under especially secure and sterile conditions.
The next challenge we face is developing and validating the right biological model for the virus. This will be an animal model that gives us clues to how the coronavirus might behave in humans.
Our previous work with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has given us a good foundation to build on.