How long will it take to make a Covid-19 vaccine?

It's been the question on everyone's lips ever since we first learned about a virus called Covid-19.

When will we be able to get a vaccine to protect us against this new coronavirus?

The short answer is - we don't know. It may never be possible to create a fully effective vaccine, or, if trials taking place at the moment go to plan, it could start to be available later this year.

More than 80 groups around the world continue to research potential vaccines, with experts in the UK at the University of Oxford carrying out the first human trials in Europe. Other research teams are investigating whether any existing drugs or therapies more commonly used for other conditions may be able to treat or cure Covid-19.

For now, the best thing we can all do is to follow the the local guidance, maintain social distancing, continue to wash our hands regularly and to self-isolate if we develop any of the symptoms while this research is taking place.

But, many of us who are missing our family and friends might wonder why these processes - in particular, the vaccine development - will take so long. Well actually, if all goes to plan, this vaccine might just go down in history as one of the quickest of all time.

What is a vaccine?

Most of us will know how a vaccine is delivered – the vast majority will have had jabs as babies, or in school to protect against things like meningitis or measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). You can also get inoculated - which is the the process of actually receiving a vaccine - against flu which can be by injection or a nasal spray depending upon your age.

But each time you get vaccinated, what is actually happening to you?

A bust of Edward Jenner, the so-called ‘father of vaccination’, located at the University of Oxford institute named in his honour

BBC Bitesize spoke to Dr Sean Elias, a post-doctoral scientist at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, who is part of the team currently researching and trialling a potential vaccine for Covid-19.

Dr Elias explained: “A vaccine is something you use to stimulate the immune system’s response, mimicking an infection. It’s a way of encouraging your body to produce an immune response that can protect you against a disease, much in the way you might react if you were infected with that disease normally.”

Vaccines typically show small amounts of a virus or bacteria to the immune system and the body’s defences recognise them as an invader and learn to fight them. If you then catch that virus or bacteria for real, your body already knows what to do.

Dr Elias is part of a team of 100 researchers working on producing a vaccine for Covid-19. They have taken the genetic sequence of the Covid-19 spike protein (a protein on the surface of a coronavirus that allows the virus to attach to a host cell, the main way the virus infects us) and inserted it into a common cold virus that infects chimpanzees. When this virus infects human cells it encourages them to make the Covid-19 spike protein, which the body then produces an immune response against. The cold virus has been modified so it cannot replicate in human cells and cause any disease itself.

“Our Covid-19 vaccine was developed in January. As scientists working on infectious diseases, we understood a pandemic like this could happen at any time and so in preparation our institute has a team that works specifically on outbreak diseases.

“Once we got the genetic sequence of the virus which came out of China, we could make the vaccine. It was done very quickly.”

So, if the vaccine was made earlier this year, why are we told that we may not be able to get the jab for 12-18 months?

What comes next?

Typically, a vaccine can take anything from years to decades to produce, depending upon the disease and how complicated the situation is.

Vial one from box one of the first clinical batch of the University of Oxford's Covid-19 potential vaccine, ready for clinical use

In the initial, pre-clinical phase, researchers work to prove that the vaccine is both safe and produces the correct type of immune response. This happens long before it gets anywhere near human testing, which follows with tightly-regulated clinical trials and safety tests. This stage can take any number of years as it’s vital to find out whether there are any serious side-effects or complications that may arise from receiving the vaccine.

“Sometimes you get it right first time. This obviously speeds up the process, but on occasions, vaccines have to go through a number of re-designs, which means more testing and more time.

“For more complicated diseases, such as malaria, which I’ve previously worked on, vaccine design becomes much more complicated. Malaria has multiple stages to its life cycle, a lot of genetic variation and can adapt to the human immune response.

"So, in that case, vaccine design has been very difficult, we’ve had to try lots and lots of different approaches to get something that works and even then, it’s not been 100% effective which is why we are still undergoing clinical trials for candidate vaccines.”

For the team at the University of Oxford, their Covid-19 vaccination has now gone to the trial phase with more than 800 volunteers signing up for their place in scientific history.

Moving to this stage so quickly is virtually unprecedented and special funding has been provided by the government to support the vaccine's progress.

Money, money, money

£47 million has already been given by the government to research teams at Oxford and another vaccine team based at Imperial College, with a further £84 million announced to help accelerate their work. Money at this level is not something that academic projects would typically receive for a vaccine that has only just been created, as Dr Elias explains.

“Depending upon the need for the vaccine, you can sometimes fast-forward the process as we have now done, but to do this you need two things; a vaccine that regulators are happy will be safe and funding, and thankfully we have both.

“There are traditionally two routes for making a vaccine, academia and industry. Academia relies on competitive grant money. Production rates are generally lower but we have a little more freedom to work on more difficult, time-consuming vaccines.

”Industry has a much bigger budget so works on a much bigger scale and can manufacture much more and much quicker than academia, but as a business, they need to make a product that at the very least covers the cost of development.”

The University of Oxford have teamed up with local companies to manufacture the vaccine, if trials prove successful, as well as pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca to scale up mass production.

Blood samples from the first volunteer for the University of Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trials

But while the finances have opened doors and created opportunities that might not have been there without it, the whole process is underpinned by the science.

“The science is there to suggest this vaccine has a good chance of working, but there are obviously no guarantees. Everyone from the scientists involved to the government and industry partners know this and are willing to take the calculated risk.”

While the scientists at the University of Oxford and other research facilities are optimistic that their work will prove successful, there are no guarantees that an effective or fully-effective vaccine for Covid-19 will ever be found. But if they are able to produce one, and to do so within the next 18 months, it will likely break records and potentially be considered one of the most remarkable pieces of scientific work in history.

For those of us who miss our friends, family and normal day-to-day lives, it might seem like a long wait but the work of Dr Elias, his colleagues and counterparts on other projects around the world continues to make this vaccine their ultimate priority.

“We are just one part of a global effort to develop vaccines against Covid-19. It’s a race against the virus not against our fellow scientists.

“As we’ve said, the earliest we could have a number of doses might be September and obviously there’s a lot of things that could happen in that time.

“This is however a small drop in the ocean. We need vaccines for the world. To achieve this we need a global effort and not just one but several successful vaccines available.

“Then and only then can we consider the global vaccine effort as one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.”

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