Last week, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he remains cautiously optimistic there will be a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year or early 2021.
But other others aren’t so sure. Dr. Faheem Younus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, believes it could take two years for a vaccine to be ready, and that’s a best-case scenario.
That’s because a vaccine has never been developed so quickly (on average, most vaccines take around 10 years to develop), and there’s no guarantee any of the vaccines under development will work.
‘Two years is the best-case scenario’
Younus took to Twitter on Sunday explaining why he believes we should plan for a two-year timeline.
“Multiple vaccines will likely be available, but their efficacy, side-effects and acceptance by the general public are all unknown,” Younus told Global News in an email.
“Vaccine development will likely take a year; it’s the supply chain, distribution and getting it physically into the host, which includes many steps. These steps will be unequal across nations based on their capacity.”
He explained that there “most likely” will be three to five vaccines available by summer 2021, but the problem is the global distribution.
“We cannot feel safe unless this pandemic is controlled globally. For example, New Zealand, Vietnam, South Korea and many others have controlled the virus, but they aren’t safe unless much of the world controls the pandemic as well,” he said.
Younus is not the only health expert to warn about a two-year timeline.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on June 21, University of Guelph viral immunologist Byram Bridle said Canadians and people around the world need to come to terms with how unlikely a one-year timeline is.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but I’m going to say it’s highly improbable,” Bridle said when asked about the short timeline.
“Everybody wants hope. But the reason I am speaking out, though, is because false hope can be really problematic. I want to be very upfront and honest with Canadians. It’s simply not feasible for a vaccine to be developed in such a short period of time.”
Bridle said the most likely timeline for vaccine development is the end of 2021.
“To go through clinical testing, there’s typically three phases. And under normal circumstances, the average time to traverse from the beginning of Phase 1 to the end of Phase 3 trial is normally 10 years or more,” he said.
The fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps, and that took four years,.
Testing has started for about a dozen potential vaccines for the coronavirus.
On Monday, the Chinese biotech firm CanSino Biologics said that China’s military has been given the green light to inject soldiers with a potential COVID-19 vaccine after clinical trials proved it was safe and showed some efficacy.
The Ad5-nCoV is one of China’s eight vaccine candidates approved for human trials at home and abroad for the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. The shot also won approval for human testing in Canada.
WHO says pandemic far from over
The WHO has repeatedly said that although there is effort being expended to find a safe and effective vaccine, there is no guarantee of success.
On Monday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the COVID-19 pandemic is not even close to being over.
“We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is that this is not even close to being over. Although many countries have made some progress globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up,” Tedros said.
“Most people remain susceptible, the virus still has a lot of room to move.”
So what if a vaccine is never developed?
Younus said the chance of a COVID-19 vaccine not being developed is “very unlikely,” however he emphasized the power of handwashing, safe distance, avoiding indoor crowds and wearing face masks.
“All these interventions, if adapted collectively by a country, are enough to bend, if not flatten, the curve,” he said.
Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News that if a vaccine isn’t developed, a certain percentage of the population would need to become infected to develop what is known as “herd immunity” in order for the pandemic to end.
The idea of herd immunity, Kwong said, is that enough people within a population are immune to a virus because they have already been infected or vaccinated so that there is no one to spread the virus to.
He said that in this case, around half of Canada’s population would need to develop natural immunity virus.
“So operating on the assumption that they do have protection after you’ve had the virus once, it’s probably going to be more than 50 per cent,” he said.
But it’s still unclear how long the immunity lasts, or even if those who have been infected would be protected at all.
If herd immunity does not work and a vaccine isn’t developed, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, previously said the coronavirus may become another endemic virus that kills people around the world every year.
“This virus may never go away. HIV has not gone away, but we’ve come to terms with the virus and we’ve found the therapies and we’ve found the prevention methods and people don’t feel as scared as they did before,” Ryan said.
Bridle said that until there’s a vaccine ready, physical-distancing measures will certainly need to remain in place for “a long period of time.”
“What’s going to be more important (than a prospect of a vaccine) is looking at intervention,” he explained. “For example, there’s the potential to repurpose drugs that have currently received approval by regulatory agencies like Health Canada, which means they have already been shown to be safe in people,” he said.
“That could be implemented faster… people would still get infected and sick, but these drugs would reduce the severity of the illness and the number of deaths associated with it.”
— With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson
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