How Long Will a Coronavirus Vaccine Take?

April 22, 2020
Developing a coronavirus vaccine is the priority for laboratories around the world. But do you really know what a vaccine is, what steps are involved in developing it, and how long it takes? In this article, we'll answer these questions.

“A possible vaccine for the coronavirus has been discovered.” Over and over again we see news like this, which quickly disappears…until the next headline comes out. So, how long will it really take for a coronavirus vaccine to be developed?

Newspapers and websites look for headlines that will get our attention. However, in this case, they’re ignoring the extreme complexity of this process to bring a little hope to society.

The sad reality is that the process of developing a vaccine is a costly one, and – above all – slow. The world’s laboratories are joining forces, and giants like the Bill Gates Foundation have poured resources into this titanic mission. However, there’s a long way to go.

So, how long will it take to get a coronavirus vaccine?

So far, there’s no exact answer. In the meantime, in this article, we’d like to have a look at what a vaccine is, and above all, the intricate process involved in its development.

Vaccines: Fighting the enemy

A vaccine is a solution with which we can create immunity against a virus by stimulating the production of antibodies. When we get a vaccination, we’re usually receiving a solution with weakened or dead forms of the microbe we want to fight.

This agent stimulates the immune system. It is then able to recognize, destroy and – above all – remember the threat for future exposure. Our immune system will then know how to act against this now recognized enemy in the future, thus preventing an infection.

For that reason, influenza isn’t a problem for the global population. If we’re vaccinated against it, then we have nothing to worry about.

A doctor giving a vaccination.
Vaccines are intended to generate immunity to pathogens.

Find out more: What’s the Origin of Coronavirus and Why Haven’t We Been Able to Eradicate It?

Developing a coronavirus vaccine: The first steps

Vaccine development is a long and complex process that often takes 10-15 years. It involves the combined participation of public and private organizations.

However, don’t panic! The development of a coronavirus vaccine is a top priority, and experts estimate that it could be ready in 12 to 18 months. Even so, the steps are intricate, and we’ll detail them below.

Screening stage

This stage involves all the basic steps that researchers carry out in a laboratory. The first step, which is more complex than it seems, is to isolate the virus from the patient in the form of a culture. In the case of the coronavirus, this occurred one month after the discovery of the virus.

Once they’ve isolated them, scientists can modify it to weaken it or isolate its toxins. From this, they’ll be able to convert it into a future vaccine. This first stage, under normal conditions, can last from 2 to 4 years.

Pre-clinical stage

At this stage, researchers inoculate the isolated weakened agent into isolated animal tissues or live animals (such as laboratory rats) to see if a reaction actually occurs in the body’s immune system.

This is never done in humans, as the risk of infection is very high. Many vaccines fail to go beyond this stage because they can’t create the desired response in the body. Once the first screening tests are completed and depending on whether it works in animals, then development begins in humans.

You may want to read: The USA Is Testing a Vaccine Against Coronavirus

Human clinical studies

This is where the most intricate part begins, and without a doubt, the most important part to develop the vaccine correctly.

  • PHASE I: Experts will use a small group of adults, generally between 20 and 80 years of age, and inoculate them with the dead or weakened infectious agent. The goals of the Phase I trials are to evaluate the safety of the potential vaccine and to determine the type and extent of the immune response it causes.
  • PHASE II: Experts will now enlarge the experimental group to several hundred people. People who are more at risk of the disease may participate in this phase.
  • PHASE III: Now there will be tens of thousands of people involved in the vaccine testing. Some unusual side effects may occur that may not have been evident in smaller groups. We’ll all have read the potential side effects of medications in general, such as “1 in 1000 people suffer from severe headaches“, for example. Although this is a very low percentage, it needs to be discovered and listed.

Leaving legal and government approval issues aside, once the vaccine has passed phase III, it should be ready.

A doctor with a vaccine.
Before being mass-produced, vaccines go through a development process with a minimum of three phases.

The coronavirus vaccination: where do we stand?

Most countries are still in the pre-clinical stage. Further animal testing of vaccines is needed to substantiate their effectiveness. Having said that, at the end of March, China moved to Phase I screening with humans.

This is good news, but we need to be clear that the minimum follow-up for vaccinated volunteers will be six months. After that, experts will expand the sample group, wait a further period, and, finally, start mass-production of the vaccine.

It’s a sad reality that we’ll have to live with the coronavirus for quite some time. However, we should also know that we also live with many other diseases for which there is no vaccine.

We have to keep in mind that the most important thing at the moment is to reduce the number of people infected and trust that the worst will soon be over.

  • Amanat F, Krammer F. SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines: Status Report [published online ahead of print, 2020 Apr 3]. Immunity. 2020;S1074-7613(20)30120-5. doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2020.03.007
  • Hodgson, J. (2020). The pandemic pipeline. Nature Biotechnology. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41587-020-00005-
  • Chen, W. H., Strych, U., Hotez, P. J., & Bottazzi, M. E. (2020). The SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Pipeline: an Overview. Current Tropical Medicine Reports. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40475-020-00201-6