Race to develop COVID-19 vaccine heats up

Around the world, about 125 teams are working on a COVID-19 vaccine.

But, some experts caution that projection is overly optimistic.

North Carolina A&T professor Joseph L. Graves, Jr., who teaches in the university's Joint School of Nanoengineering, says an 18-month timeframe might be possible.

"But, 18 months is if everything goes perfectly, and there are no drawbacks and setbacks," Graves says.

Graves says vaccines are notoriously complicated to produce and often take 5 years or longer to develop and test.

"As much as we want something right now, to do this properly, and to make sure that the vaccine itself is safe to use in humans, it's a detailed and a long process," Graves says.

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The Trump Administration has invested 2.6 billion dollars in "Operation Warp Speed," a project aimed at developing a coronavirus vaccine by January of 2021.

In an online interview with the Editor-in-Chief of JAMA, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks we may have a vaccine ready to go as soon as January.

A frontrunner is the mRNA vaccine being developed by Moderna Therapeutics, which is being tested at the Emory Vaccine Center.

Dr. Fauci says the vaccine, now in phase 2 clinical trials, is being tested for safety and efficacy in about 600 healthy adult volunteers.

By July, he says, the vaccine could move to phase 3 trials, involving as many as 30,000 volunteers.

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To expedite the development process, Dr. Fauci says, the company could begin producing the vaccine months before the final study data is released.

"So, we're going to start manufacturing doses of the vaccines way before we even know if the vaccine works," he says.

Fauci says we should know how efficacious the test vaccine in by November or December when the final data is expected to be released.

"By that time, we hopefully would have close to 100 million doses," he says.  "And, by the beginning of 2021, we hope to have a couple of hundred million doses.   So, it isn't as if we are going to make the vaccine, show it's effective, and then after a year have to rev up to millions and millions and millions of doses.  That's going to be done as we're testing the vaccine."

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Fauci says the gamble will be a financial one, and the vaccine will go through rigorous safety testing.

Yet, there are still a lot of unknowns.

"There is never a guarantee, ever, that you're going to get an effective vaccine," he says.

Graves says he is confident we will get a COVID-19 vaccine, eventually. He says one reason is the virus is not mutating at a rapid rate. 

"But the reality of the situation is this is the type of thing you don't want to get wrong," Graves says. "You want to do it right.  Because you want to make sure that the vaccine works and that it's safe for humans."

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