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What history tells us about the timeline for a successful COVID-19 vaccine

Flickr Creative Commons/Sanofi Pasteur

Dr. Howard Markel, medical historian at the University of Michigan joined Stateside to talk about the history of vaccine development and what a coronavirus vaccine will and won't mean when it's finally ready.

One of the big difficulties with COVID-19 is that it’s a novel virus, it’s never been seen in humans before. “We’re talking about an RNA virus and that is especially tough to make vaccines against. Another famous RNA virus is HIV and we still don’t have a vaccine against that,” Markel said.

Today vaccines are mostly developed by pharmaceutical companies. Between research and development, testing, regulations and manufacturing, vaccine development is costly, time consuming and highly privatized. In the past, vaccines were often developed by municipal or state health departments or research institutions.

Things are moving much faster with the COVID-19 vaccine. There are already two in their final phase of testing. This is good in terms of getting a vaccine to market and keeping people safe, but Markel remains cautiously optimistic.

“I am concerned a vaccine might be rushed to the marketplace,” Markel said. “The very name of the project Warp Speed, I mean it’s probably never a good idea to name your vaccine project after something from Star Trek.”

But mistakes happen. In 1955 some batches of the polio vaccine contained a live strain of the virus which infected thousands of kids. Two hundred of those kids became paralyzed and ten died. However, this turned out to be a “blip on the horizon” for the vaccine. Once corrected parents continued to vaccinate their children against polio successfully. 

Markel also talked about at risk groups, like African Americans, who are being hit hardest by the pandemic. “I was reading the other day in the New York Times report of interviews among the African American community who feared a government sponsored vaccine, particularly one that was endorsed by Donald Trump and were harkening that back to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study," he said.

Bioethicists are discussing how to distribute a coronavirus vaccine and questioning who should get it first. During the H1N1 pandemic, people said they were interested in getting the vaccine, but only 20% of people ended up getting it. Generally with vaccines there tends to be more doses than people who want to get vaccinated, but Markel said he hopes this time is different.

“It’s hard to imagine, but I hope we’re turning people away for a while because that means more people want the vaccine than we have it and then we’ll make more.”

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