The state of COVID-19 vaccine research is currently in a Catch-22 dilemma, according to Dr. William Klimstra, an associate professor in the Immunology Department at the University of Pittsburgh, who is currently working on a potential vaccine.
The dilemma is this: The reason the development of a vaccine takes so long is that scientists have to be careful the vaccine does no harm in animals first and then in humans, before it even begins to test whether it’s effective.
But at the same time, many Americans are not convinced that a vaccine would be safe and have said they wouldn’t take it even if it was developed.
“We’re in an environment right now where longstanding accepted truths are being challenged through social media,” Klimstra said. "It’s very difficult to fight that kind of stuff."
Klimstra said during an interview with Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Facebook Wednesday that scientists across the world are working on hundreds of potential vaccines. He said he thought the earliest one could be ready would be the start of 2021. The fastest vaccine developed in the past took four years. “Things are moving faster,” he said. “I cannot predict exactly the timing."
He said the testing to ensure safety takes time.“Honestly, in terms of the time it’s going to take to get something into the marketplace, [safety] is the No. 1 consideration,” Klimstra said.
But he referenced a poll that was released Wednesday showing that only half of Americans would take a vaccine and 20% said they would not. About 30% remain undecided.
If there were a vaccine in the coming winter (late December through March), Klimstra said, it could substantially limit the harm of a potential new wave of infections that some disease experts say could come during the cold weather. But the success of the vaccine would depend in part on how many people take it.
Klimstra also pointed out that there is no basis for the information on social media that has suggested a link between vaccines in general and autism. “It has been debunked completely,” he said. "It’s not accepted by anybody who thinks about this critically.”
On Wednesday, Dr. Rachel Levine, the Pennsylvania secretary of health, said that, even during the green phase, people would still be advised to take a number of precautions. “All indications are,” she said, that the state would only likely return to the “old normal” after a safe vaccine was developed that could be distributed.
Vaccines, such as for polio and measles, are among the most successful medical technologies ever invented, Klimstra said, and “hundreds of millions of lives have been saved.”
Klimstra said the best way to distribute a vaccine would be through a concerted effort from the government. "What I would like to see — not sure if it’s what I am going to see — is a coherent and focused government effort to make this vaccine available to everybody,” he said.
Most of the funding agencies that he knows about require that any vaccine developed be made available without regard to cost, he said. This should be possible because modern vaccines made from nucleic acids that mimic parts of the virus have few limitations that would limit their widespread manufacture.
"One of the things about [modern] vaccines is that they can make unlimited supplies,” he said. “So hopefully there won’t be restrictions."
Klimstra said there are hundreds of potential vaccines in development across the world, three of which are being developed at the University of Pittsburgh but none of the three has yet made it to a human trial.
His laboratory is one of 14 “regional biocontainment laboratories” across the country that were developed after the anthrax scares in 2001 that have enough safeguards in place to do certain kinds of coronavirus research. At the end of January, he said, the entire lab began to focus entirely on COVID-19, which is one type of coronavirus.
There are many kinds of coronaviruses in all kinds of animals now, he said, such as whales, seals and hogs. It’s been known since the SARS outbreak around 2003 that coronaviruses frequently jump to other animals, he said, including humans.
"That’s one of the lessons I hope the funding agencies and health agencies in the U.S. learn,” he said. "This type of thing is likely to happen again and we need to have things shelf ready in the future because it probably will happen again."
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.