What needs to happen for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive this year?

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Here's what needs to happen before a COVID-19 vaccine can arrive.

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be resolved without a reliable, effective, and safe vaccine. Scientists have been working around the clock since the start of 2020 to develop one. More specifically, they are researching more than 150 unique vaccines in hopes of finding one or more that work.

But when will a COVID-19 vaccine arrive?

A recent New York Times report containing documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that a vaccine could be available in late October or early November. That’s welcome news for everyone who is ready to put the pandemic in the past.

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However, rolling out a vaccine to billions of people isn’t easy. There are a lot of things that need to happen before a COVID-19 vaccine can be released. Ensuring safety and preparing for the masses are two of the most important issues.

Focusing on Safety

Although COVID-19 is a horrifying disease, rushing an unsafe vaccine isn’t going to help anything. If scientists wanted to release an untested vaccine they could have done so months ago. Fortunately, that isn’t the case.

Of the 150 vaccines already in development, 37 are being tested in people. The entire trial process includes three phases, each of which are designed to test a different area of a given vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Two vaccines are currently leading the way. One comes from a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Moderna. The other is from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Both vaccines are made of genetic material from the novel coronavirus, specifically messenger RNA (mRNA). This allows the body to build an immune response to a spike protein found on the virus. In doing so, it becomes protected against COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that no gene-based vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That doesn’t mean they aren’t safe—they just haven’t been needed yet. However, developing gene-based vaccines is a quick and cost-effective approach that will prove vital in an effort that aims to vaccinate billions of people.

Right now, scientists are working to ensure that the vaccines are safe. Stacey Shultz-Cherry, an infectious disease researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, says, “The worst thing that could happen would be to release a vaccine that’s not safe…imagine for all of our vaccine programs the impact that would have on public health and consumer confidence.”

It’s possible for very rare side effects to go unnoticed if a vaccine isn’t tested for a long enough period of time. In other words, ending the vaccine trials early will require overwhelming evidence that they are safe. Currently, researchers are still working to confirm this. If they do, it could pave the way for a vaccine that arrives as soon as next month.

Ensuring Readiness

Imagine giving one sip of water to every person in America. Then, imagine scaling that business to include every person on Earth. Now, imagine that each sip of water needs to be paired with a costly piece of medical equipment, stored in its own container, and kept at a temperature below negative 70 degrees Celsius.

That’s a glimpse into the reality that public health experts are dealing with right now.

Shultz-Cherry says, “If these are the vaccines that are going to be deployed, one of the really important reasons why logistically the states need to be prepared is because you can’t just take it to a workplace or a doctor’s office…if they don’t have the proper storage conditions.”

“It would be like…if I say I’m going to buy you some ice cream and I’ll bring it to you, you have to be prepared to either eat it right then or store it somewhere because it’s not going to last,” she adds.

This is why states are being told to start preparing now. If a vaccine is deemed safe for an October or November release, the infrastructure to support it needs to be in place ahead of time. Even if the vaccine is ready, states must first have the equipment to safely store and administer it. Until that happens, a vaccine won’t be available to the public.

Shultz-Cherry says, “There’s a lot to do if the results continue to look very promising and it’s safe. It’s not insurmountable by any means, but it needs to be coordinated.”

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