Is a COVID-19 vaccine possible? ‘Some viruses are very, very difficult,’ expert says

Don Sweeney

An effective coronavirus vaccine, considered key to bringing the world back to normal, just may not be in the cards, according to some medical experts.

“You don’t necessarily develop a vaccine that is safe and effective against every virus,” said David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College in London, The Guardian reported.

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“Some viruses are very, very difficult when it comes to vaccine development,” he said, according to the publication. Nabarro, also a World Health Organization envoy on COVID-19, says people will have to “find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat” for now.

And even if an effective vaccine proves to be possible, it may take years to develop, Business Insider reports.

“We could have a vaccine in three weeks, but we can’t guarantee its safety or efficacy,” said Gary Kobinger, a virologist at Canada’s Laval University, New Scientist reported.

More than 2.5 million cases of the COVID-19 virus have been confirmed worldwide with more than 179,000 deaths as of April 22, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has more than 826,000 confirmed cases with more than 45,000 deaths.

WHO declared coronavirus a global pandemic. In the United States, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses known for causing everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, says WHO.

They take their name from the crown-like spikes on the virus, which help it attack cells, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The COVID-19 virus, a new strain, emerged in humans in Wuhan, China, in December after possibly passing to people through bats and pangolins, a scaly Asian anteater.

Is a coronavirus vaccine possible?

Researchers have never been able to develop a medically proven vaccine against any strain of coronavirus, National Geographic reported.

“Some viruses are very easy to make a vaccine for, and some are very complicated,” said Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine, New York Magazine reported.

For example, work on vaccines for SARS in the early 2000s and MERS in the 2010s took so long that scientists eventually gave up as the epidemics waned, Business Insider reported.

What are the obstacles to a coronavirus vaccine?

One barrier to a COVID-19 vaccine may be that natural immunity to coronaviruses seems to be short-lived, Scientific American reported.

Most vaccines work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies that fight off later infections. In the case of coronaviruses, this immunity just doesn’t last, according to the publication.

In fact, in animal tests of prospective SARS and MERS vaccines, some animals could be reinfected by the same strain that caused the initial infection, Scientific American reports.

“People think, ‘Oh, if you make antibodies to it, it’s going to be protective,’” said Rachel Roper, a professor of immunology at East Carolina University, New York Magazine reported.

“That’s not necessarily true,” said Roper, who helped work on a possible SARS vaccine. “We were able to induce an immune response, but it wasn’t good enough to really protect against the disease.”

What possible COVID-19 vaccines are being worked on?

In early April, studies on at least 40 possible COVID-19 vaccines were under way, Business Insider reported.

And experimental vaccines in Germany and the United Kingdom have already proceeded to human trials, The New York Post reported.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll get dozens of vaccines.

“Not all horses that leave the starting gate will finish the race,” said Bruce Gellin of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, The Guardian reported.

What happens if we can’t develop a full vaccine?

Without an immediate safe and effective vaccine against coronavirus, we’ll just have to keep protecting ourselves and others against COVID-19, The Guardian reported.

“That means isolating those who show signs of the disease and also their contacts,” Nabarro said, according to the publication. “Older people will have to be protected. In addition hospital capacity for dealing with cases will have to be ensured. That is going to be the new normal for us all.”

But even if we never get a fully effective vaccine against coronavirus, there are benefits to even a partial vaccine, New York Magazine reported.

“Partially effective vaccines can still prevent serious illness and death,” Roper said, according to the publication. “And even though it’s not perfect protection, it does protect from hospitalization and death. It gives your immune system the jump.”