Running for a COVID-19 vaccine - research at turbo speed

2 minute read

These days, the whole world is looking for a vaccine for COVID-19 with much anxiety and expectation and many have written about how science has been coming together for a whole new level of cooperation in all areas related to this pandemic. The references here are good reads.

As of the 30th of April 2020, there’s 102 candidates for a COVID-19 vaccine, counting those in pre-clinical (94) and clinical (8) stages. The WHO is publishing this information in regular updates, so we know that just 10 days ago, on the 20th of April, there was a total of 76 candidates between these stages, and on the 11th of April there were 70.

The data shown in the card is taken from these regular reports the WHO releases (linked in the references below) about what is known on this vaccine research; specifically, the reports from the 11th, 20th and 30th of April have been used. Note how the number of candidates has increased in a matter of 20 days and also how quickly some have switched to a clinical stage. For context, the pre-clinical stage in vaccine development is the one carried out in the lab and/or on animals while the clinical stage is when testing on humans is carried out, for both effectiveness and safety. Normally, the clinical stage is composed of two phases, one with a small set of people and a subsequent larger one.

A data card: three time snapshots of the vaccine candidates in pre-clinical and clinical stages (WHO information).

Research is indeed speeding up the procedures to find a vaccine, and interestingly, many of these candidates are based on methodologies for which no other licensed vaccine exists already - if successful this might be the first of its type. Also worth of note is the speed at which some candidates have reached the clinical stage, an event that usually happens much later in the development. This is all research at turbo speed - the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced (published) on the 11th of January 2020 and the first vaccine candidate entering the clinical stage did so on the 16th of March 2020. Note that the majority of this vaccine research is being carried out in the industry (about 30% is universities and public bodies).

There’s much chat (politicians, journalists) about when a vaccine might be available (18 months? 12 months? 2 years?) but the truth is we don’t really know. Research is going at an incredible speed and a great deal of people/groups/bodies are involved, but there’s still many unknowns about the virus itself and also about the logistic plans to eventually distribute the successful vaccine, one day. Estimating when it’ll be ready seems a bit unreliable.

This article on the New York Times presents some explanations and interactives over scenarios for the development of this vaccine.

References & good reads

  1. E Callaway, The race for coronavirus vaccines: a graphical guide, Nature News Feature, 28 April 2020
  2. T T Le et al., The COVID-19 vaccine development landscape, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 9 April 2020
  3. S Berkley, COVID-19 needs a big science approach, editorial on Science, 367:6485, 27 March 2020
  4. Stages of vaccine development, European Vaccine Initiative
  5. S Thompson, How long will a vaccine really take?, The New York Times, 30 April 2020
  6. WHO landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines, 11 April 2020
  7. WHO landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines, 20 April 2020
  8. WHO landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines, 30 April 2020