Unrealistic to expect vaccine for novel coronavirus to arrive soon

By TAO LINA (China Daily) Updated : 2020-02-24


Test tube with Corona virus name label is seen in this illustration taken on Jan 29, 2020. [Photo/Agencies] 

At a news conference on Saturday, the Science and Technology Department of Zhejiang Province said that their newly developed vaccine for the novel coronavirus had already produced antibodies and was now being tested on animals.

That news has been widely reported, with some media outlets declaring in big, bold headlines "Vaccines for novel coronavirus possible in the near future". Zhejiang has made good progress, but even the department itself said that the cycle of developing vaccines is quite long. It is unrealistic to expect a vaccine for the novel coronavirus to be available any time soon.

Animal testing is still an early stage in the development of vaccines, and it comprises two phases, namely safety and validity. After both are finished, which means the pre-clinical vaccine proves safe and valid on animals, the vaccine will be tested on volunteers. Then the tests will be expanded to hospitals and if all goes well, it will then be allowed to enter the market.

The process of producing a vaccine is very long. It took 18 years for Chinese scientists to produce the first domestic Human papillomaviruses (HPV) vaccine. It took 37 years for researchers to develop a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) vaccine to the last step, which the latest reports show has failed.

Therefore, Zhejiang's progress in developing a novel coronavirus vaccine is welcome, but one should not expect to get a shot to protect against the virus in the near future.

Yet Zhejiang's breakthroughs are still innovative in two aspects. First, they have confirmed that S-protein of the novel coronavirus plays a key role in its intrusion into human cells, and the vaccine is specifically targeted at preventing this. That raises hopes that the vaccine will be effective.

Second, the vaccine was produced with a new virus vector technology, which exploits the way viruses hijack cell machinery to introduce desired genetic material into human cells. The same technology was applied to produce a vaccine for Ebola, but that vaccine has not been put on the market because the risk is rather low in China. If the novel coronavirus vaccine makes its way into the market, it will be the first one in the Chinese market produced with virus vector technology.