According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States is currently in the acceleration phase of the coronavirus pandemic. All 50 states have reported cases of the disease the novel coronavirus creates, COVID-19. Cases include people who became infected while traveling outside the United States, people who were infected after coming into close contact with an infected person, and people who were infected but do not know the source of the infection.
With close to 60,000 deaths from COVID-19, the United States has the highest mortality rate of any nation. In fact, the virus has claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War. The number of people who have become ill is more difficult to calculate since the disease can cause mild to no symptoms in some, delays in reporting and testing for the disease are spotty, and some people choose to ride out the illness without seeking medical help or testing. Currently, though, more than 1.04 million Americans have been confirmed positive, and the disease has infected 3.17 million people worldwide, with numbers rising daily. Only 143,000 Americans have recovered from the illness.
What Is in Development?
Several vaccines are currently in development to fight SARS-CoV-2, the specific version of the coronavirus pathogen that causes COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 90 vaccines in the works.
Only six of the vaccine candidates are in Phase I or Phase II testing, human trials that can last weeks to even years. The furthest along in the clinical process are vaccines from CanSino Biologics out of Hong Kong and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, both of which are in Phase II.
Promising Research from Oxford
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute scientists say that, with an accelerated regulatory process, they may be able to get their version to the public as early as this September. In 2019, the institute had jump-started developing a vaccine that proved to be safe in humans. By the end of May 2020, about 6,000 people will be tested with the vaccine.
Nonhuman studies of the Oxford vaccine look promising as well. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys, a type of primate that is a close genetic match to humans, with single doses of the vaccine from Oxford. After heavy exposure to SARS-CoV-2 at exposure levels that had caused other monkeys in the lab to become ill, the six inoculated monkeys were healthy when tested more than four weeks later. A Chinese company, SinoVac, also has had success testing on rhesus macaques.
As far as vaccine production goes, competition is a plus. Having several vaccines in the works is necessary, notes Emilio Emini, vaccine program director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, because some more than others may prove useful in specific groups within the population, such as children or the elderly. The Gates Foundation is funding efforts to find a vaccine.
Will Herd Immunity Work?
Herd immunity, or community immunity, occurs when a sufficient number of people become immune to a disease through vaccination or by having acquired the disease and recovered, known as natural immunity, and therefore prevent the infection from spreading within the community. Herd immunity helps protect vulnerable people within a population, including the unvaccinated due to age, pregnancy, underlying health issues, and a weakened immune system. The percentage of immune people needed to protect the rest of the population differs by disease, but it tends to be a high percentage. As an example, 95 percent of the population needs to have immunity to the highly infectious disease measles to protect the 5 percent of the population who never had the disease or never received a vaccination for it.
Most scientists argue that herd immunity will not work for COVID-19 because, with the rate of hospitalizations for the disease at about 10 percent, according to some calculations, too many would be at risk of becoming very ill when exposed and hospitals could not handle the burden. Also, with such a new disease, not enough solid data on the immunity of survivors is available. Having had the disease may provide some immunity, though, given that COVID-19 has genetic similarities to severe acute respirator syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which have shown signs of protection in survivors.
A vaccine seems to be the answer for this disease, which may produce a second or even a third wave.
Sources: CDC, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Cases in the US,” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html and “Development of New Vaccines,” https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/basics/test-approve.html; Fortune, “World Health Organization Says 3 More Coronavirus Vaccines Are in Human Trials,” https://fortune.com/2020/04/23/coronavirus-vaccine-update-who/; MarketWatch, “Oxford University Scientists Reveal Coronavirus Vaccine Timeline as Human Trial Begins,” https://www.marketwatch.com/story/oxford-university-coronavirus-vaccine-to-begin-human-trials-on-thursday-as-uk-throws-everything-at-vital-breakthrough-2020-04-21; San Diego Union-Tribune, April 28, 2020, “Progress Seen in Race for Virus Vaccine,” https://enewspaper.sandiegouniontribune.com/desktop/sdut/default.aspx?pubid=ee84df93-f3c1-463c-a82f-1ab095a198ca; Science Alert, “Here’s Why Immunity Won’t Save Us from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, https://www.sciencealert.com/why-herd-immunity-will-not-save-us-from-the-covid-19-pandemic.