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COMMENTARY: Think a COVID-19 vaccine is months away? It could actually take years


The average times of the fastest sprinters in the 100-metre dash are in the ballpark of 10 seconds. So, what would you think if someone promised to run the race in one second?

It typically takes a minimum of 10 years for a vaccine to complete the three consecutive phases of the clinical research pipeline. This is because of the scope and length of the experiments, the need to critically assess the results at each stage and the mountains of paperwork that are involved.

READ MORE: WHO says it’s hoping for a vaccine ‘this year’ 

What are the chances that this can be reduced to 12 months? Indeed, it has been implied that this process can be accelerated to “warp speed.”

We contend that a safe and effective vaccine against severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is the causative agent of coronavirus disease COVID-19, most likely cannot be made available to the public in time to make a substantial difference to the natural outcome of this pandemic. People often cling to hope even when prospects of success are low. However, this can have negative consequences if that hope is not realized.

We are academic scientists who manage vaccine research programs. In fact, one of us Byram Bridle, received COVID-19-focused funding to develop a novel vaccine platform.

Although many of us are working hard toward developing vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, we worry that some in the scientific community have offered too much hope for this to be accomplished in a timely fashion. Sometimes these promises are used by politicians and governments to inform public policies. As a result, the integrity of the scientific community is now in the limelight and, arguably, at risk.

Vaccines are an effective way for a population to achieve what is known as “herd immunity.” This is the concept that the pandemic will end once approximately 60-70 per cent of people become immune to SARS-CoV-2. An alternative is to let SARS-CoV-2 run its natural course until herd immunity is achieved. With physical distancing, some epidemiologists argue this could take two years, during which time a vaccine could be developed.

However, vaccinating at the tail end of a pandemic when disease incidence is very low and declining may be of little utility, hence the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. If one is not in widespread use within the first half of 2021, it will probably be too late to have a meaningful impact on the control of COVID-19.

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Educators often rely on past performance to predict the future performance of students. In this respect, how was the performance of the scientific community in the wake of the original SARS-CoV, or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV? The fact is, no vaccine against a coronavirus has successfully navigated the rigours of clinical testing, despite having up to 17 years to do so.

The same applies to other dangerous respiratory pathogens, such as respiratory syncytial virus. Whether enough has been learned from these past experiences to get the design of COVID-19 vaccines right remains to be seen, and still does not negate the need for a rigorous testing process that will take time.


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