How Close are We to a COVID-19 Vaccine?

A vaccine to protect against the coronavirus will be many things wrapped up in a small vial: A harbinger of a return to normalcy, a scientific feat for the ages and, depending on when it arrives, a politically potent symbol.

The timeline for how long it will take to get that vaccine is a moving target and depends on whom you ask – and when.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, has repeatedly said he hopes a vaccine could be available by the end of 2020 or early 2021.

President Donald Trump has promised a vaccine will be ready by the end of this year or by January. A White House-led partnership, Operation Warp Speed, has allocated almost $10 billion to the effort and as much as $1.2 billion has already been promised on a single vaccine candidate.

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has pledged to have at least 300 million doses for the United States delivered as early as October 2020 – likely even before a vaccine is approved.

If you think of it as a clock ticking from midnight (when the pandemic began) to noon (when vaccines will be widely available in the United States and life returns to something approaching normal), then as of June, the panel says it’s about 4 AM.

“The sun has not yet peeked over the horizon, but the horizon glows in the east. We are no longer in darkness,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director of immunization education with the Immunization Action Coalition.

The USA TODAY vaccine panel is designed to offer readers an objective, nonpartisan understanding of how close we are to getting an effective vaccine distributed to the nation’s residents. We’re about a third of the way there, they say.

“I think we’ll have a vaccine by the middle of next year,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

Pamala Bjorkman, a structural biologist at Caltech University agrees, though she believes one of the hardest parts — scaling up to make enough doses of the vaccines — is still a major challenge ahead.

“I subtracted an hour from the one-third of the way there estimate to account for manufacturability and distribution issues,” she said via email.

The challenge isn’t just to create a safe and effective new vaccine – more than 11 possible candidates will be in human testing this summer. But for a vaccine to end up in a pharmacy or doctor’s office near you, companies will have to produce hundreds of millions of doses and then deliver them across the country and eventually, the world.

It’s 4 a.m.: Vaccines are on their way

For June, eleven panelists answered our timeline question. Their answers fell between 2 AM and 6 AM, with a median of 4 AM — the point where half of the answers were earlier and half were later.

The majority said actual progress on getting coronavirus vaccines was remarkably far along with scientists working 24/7 on ways to end the pandemic.

‘The brightest minds in the world are in this fight and they are moving with an incredible sense of urgency,” said Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group for the biotechnology industry.

In a historic and global effort, the basic science behind dozens of vaccine development efforts has mostly been finished in the six months since the virus first appeared.

“The vaccine candidates are largely in hand,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University.

The global effort has been stellar, said Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

“I have never seen science move so fast,” he said.

Safety first in coronavirus vaccines

While the science to come up with candidate vaccines was hard, it wasn’t insurmountable given recent advances in genetics, virology and immunology.

Many of the vaccines in the pipeline rely on new technologies whose underlying science is understoodalthough the actual techniques are still being worked out.

Just having vaccine for the United States won’t protect us, said Erica Ollmann Saphire, a structural biologist and professor at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

The important date isn’t when the first person in the US can go to their doctor’s office and get the first shot. The important date is when we have enough coverage to prevent resurgence and recirculation among the human population, she said.

“We have seen very clearly this year that virus anywhere can become virus everywhere,” she said.

The larger issues looming for these experts is…

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