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What Scientists Face When Developing A COVID-19 Vaccine

NIH Image Gallery/Flickr (Public Domain)
A 3D model of a spike protein on the surface of 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. Spike proteins cover the surface of the virus and enable it to enter and infect human cells.

From Texas Standard:

An effective COVID-19 vaccine could help stop or at least slow the spread of the new coronaviru, which the World Health Organization has deemed a pandemic.

Maria Elena Bottazzi co-directs the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. She told Texas Standard Friday that there are several prototype vaccines for COVID-19, including one at her institution. But all of them would still have to go through clinical testing before being used on the public.

"It's probably going to take between 12 and 18 months to finally start getting some evidence of whether any of [the vaccines] will be not only safe, but maybe with a hint of efficacy," Bottazzi said.

President Donald Trump has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to fast-track vaccine development. Bottazzi said that could put potential COVID-19 vaccines at the top of the agency's list for review. It also means the FDA would evaluate multiple vaccines at once, rather than reviewing them "sequentially."

"They probably can look at things faster, but at the same time, looking at whether things can be done complement[arily]," she said.

Many options are on the table. The prototype vaccine at her institution, for example, was originally developed for SARS, another coronavirus. But scientists need many things in order to explore these options.

"You need funding and you need resources as much as you need time, and of course as much as you need transparency of sharing the data," Bottazzi said.

Of those, funding is one of the bigger hurdles. Money for vaccine development, whether from the federal government, philanthropic organizations or other sources likely will not increase. Instead, it will be redistributed, Bottazzi said.

"I don't think money can just be created brand new. It's probably going to have to be taken from another ... allocation," she said.

Developing a vaccine outside of the pharmaceutical industry poses additional challenges. For example, where Bottazzi works, research isn't backed by venture capital or stockholders, and is not intended for profit. And vaccines of this nature aren't suited for the marketplace anyway, she said. They're the kind that governments stockpile for emergencies.

She said pharmaceutical companies now developing vaccines also have to answer to shareholders and often receive more notice for their efforts.

"Their influence can also jeopardize groups that are really, genuinely trying to ... push this with a global, public-good perspective," Bottazzi said.

Written by Caroline Covington.

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