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March 31, 2020 • read

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When will a vaccine for COVID-19 be available?

In a previous article about COVID-19, we covered everything you need to know about the disease’s signs, symptoms and treatment. Since then, one of the most common questions we’ve received is “when will doctors have a vaccine?”

Currently, doctors are treating COVID-19 with supportive care. That means a patient’s vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing function, and temperature, are monitored and stabilized. It’s up to the patient’s immune system to fight off the virus.

What’s reassuring to know is that 81% of COVID-19 cases are mild. Some people won’t even know that they’re sick. And this is part of the danger. It means groups of people who have a mild form of the illness can easily spread it to people who are at higher risk, like senior citizens, or people with pre-existing health conditions. That’s certainly not to say that these are the only groups at risk — even young healthy people have ended up in hospital. 

That’s why social distancing and practicing good hygiene are so important — they’re the best strategy we have to lower the number of new infections. And at this point, there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. The good news is that there’s an international effort underway to quickly develop a vaccine. But how long before it’s publicly available? We’ve got the latest facts on the situation here. 

What is a vaccine?

There are several types of vaccines, but they all work on the same basic principle. Scientists isolate a virus and make changes to it so it’s no longer harmful to humans. Then, doctors administer the altered pathogen to patients. The patient’s body recognizes the vaccine pathogen as foreign, and develops antibodies to neutralize the threat. If the patient is exposed to the full-fledged version of the virus later on, their body knows how to fight it off. 

After developing a prototype vaccine, scientists determine the right dosage to give to patients. Then, the vaccine enters three rounds of testing. First, scientists test the vaccine on healthy people with low risk of complications. Then, they test the vaccine on its intended patient group, such as children in the case of the chickenpox vaccine. Finally, scientists test the vaccine on a wide range of individuals from various geographic locations and lifestyles. After all this testing is complete, the vaccine is distributed. Scientists continue to test the vaccine on an ongoing basis to ensure it’s still working properly and is not causing unintentional complications. 

Timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine

The World Health Organization estimates that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be ready in 12-18 months. There are currently 11 vaccine formulations in wide-scale efficacy trials. While 12-18 months might sound like a long time, it’s actually pretty speedy for vaccine development. Most vaccines hit the market after 5-15 years of development and testing. If scientists can achieve their goal of 12 months, it will be an impressive feat. 

Over 35 companies and academic institutions are currently working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization are helping to coordinate and accelerate these efforts. 

Since the novel coronavirus shares genetic similarities with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Disease) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), scientists have a head start towards a COVID-19 vaccine. They can leverage the existing body of research on previous coronaviruses to develop a vaccine faster.

Treatment drugs

There are two drugs that have received media attention for their potential in treating COVID-19 patients. The first is Remedsivir, which is used to treat Ebola. The second, Chloroquine, is an anti-malaria drug. 

Chloroquine has seen modest results in helping patients with COVID-19 recover quicker by preventing the coronavirus from attaching to lung cells. However, the FDA advises against the use of chloroquine outside of hospital settings or clinical trials as it may cause heart rhythm problems. 

Remedsivir has been used in compassionate care, for when patients have few options left. Some patients who’ve taken it have shown great recoveries. The medication works by interfering with RNA replication within the coronavirus. 

More testing is needed to confirm the long-term effectiveness and safety of both these drugs. In the meantime, we’ve listed below the best steps to protect yourself from catching COVID-19.

The best solution for now

Following community guidelines like physical distancing and frequent hand washing is the best thing you can do to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

According to epidemiologists, if it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all North Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, the whole pandemic would sputter to a halt. The virus would die on every contaminated surface, and everyone carrying the virus would display concrete symptoms. 

In lieu of standing still for two weeks, you can do your part to stop the spread of COVID-19 by staying at home and following official health recommendations:

If you’re feeling sick, it’s important to take extra precautions in addition to the above:

  • Cover your cough with a tissue or elbow.
  • Self-isolate.
  • Visit a healthcare professional virtually or call your local public health authority. Try to avoid in person facilities unless you are experiencing severe symptoms.
  • Monitor your symptoms for 14 days, even if they’re mild.
  • Wear a face mask when around other people.

Scientists are working around the clock to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, but unfortunately we can’t expect a finished product for at least 12 months. By that point, the coronavirus pandemic may be long behind us. In the case of SARS and MERS, vaccines for both illnesses were in development, but production halted when the outbreaks were eventually contained. 

In the meantime, it’s important to self-isolate, monitor yourself for symptoms and practice good hygiene. We as a community are the best bet to suppress COVID-19. 

Talk to a doctor online.

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