Talk to Patients About: Why Will It Take So Long for a COVID-19 Vaccine?
By Sean Price Texas Medicine June 2020

Of all the solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, a vaccine is the most attractive. With just one shot, people could transform the disease from a global disruptor to an easily manageable public health problem. 

But vaccines can’t be whipped up overnight. Typically, they take seven to 10 years to produce, says Dallas epidemiologist Robert Haley, MD. Even a vaccine on the fast track – and COVID-19 is on the fastest track possible – could take up to 18 months, he says.

The race to find a vaccine has been on ever since China published the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on Jan. 11. All U.S. vaccines have to be licensed by the Food and Drug Administration, and dozens of private labs and researchers are working hard to reach that goal.

But many of them won’t make it because “a lot of what looks like it’s going to work [in the laboratory] doesn’t immunize,” Dr. Haley said.

Vaccines that do show promise must go through extensive clinical development and testing, a three-phase process that consumes most of the time for vaccine development and ultimately requires human trials to ensure safety and efficacy, followed by regulator review and  approval, manufacturing, and quality control (tma.tips/CDCVaccineApproval).  

 “The most important thing with a vaccine is that it works and that it’s safe in large numbers of people,” said C. Mary Healy, MD, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. She is associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

The fact that COVID-19 involves a new virus could impact the learning curve and timeline for vaccine development in this case, Dr. Healy adds.

“We need to remember that it’s a process,” she said. “And while it’s being expedited, it can only be expedited so much.”

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Tex Med. 2020;116(6):19
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Last Updated On

July 10, 2020

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Sean Price

Reporter

(512) 370-1392

Sean Price is a reporter for Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He's worked as an award-winning writer and editor for a variety of national magazine, book, and website publishers in New York and Washington. He's also helped produce Texas-based marketing campaigns designed to promote public health. Sean lives in Austin and enjoys hiking, photography, and spending time with his wife and two sons.

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