Will There Be a COVID-19 Vaccine?

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Even though some states have begun reopening following the widespread stay-at-home measures adopted to limit the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus, many public health experts agree that it may not be entirely safe to return to previous levels of economic and societal operations until a vaccine becomes widely available. Today, promising news has arrived about a potential vaccine that could accelerate the global journey toward gradually restabilizing.

The publicly owned biotechnology company Moderna, which has never before brought any of its products to market or received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval on vaccines for other viruses, announced that its early-stage human trial for a potential COVID-19 vaccine has shown positive results. Moderna has revealed that all 45 participants in the trial showed healthy levels of COVID-19 antibodies following injections with the test vaccine. These results come from three different groups of study participants who each received two doses of the vaccine.

Moderna separated its 45 participants into three groups of 15 people, and each group was given a different amount of the vaccine. One group was given 25 micrograms (mcg), another was given 100 mcg, and a final group was given 250 mcg. Each participant also received two injections of their assigned dosage, with the second injection following the first by 28 days. At the time of Moderna’s announcement, the company had not yet collected data on its second set of injections for the 250 mcg dosage group.

The data on which Moderna based today’s news comes from just eight of the 45 study participants. In these patients – four of whom received the 25 mcg dose and four of whom received the 100 mcg dose – the vaccine led to a blood volume of COVID-19 antibodies similar to or greater than levels found in people who have recovered from the virus. This result may indicate that the vaccine is effective, but this metric on its own does not entirely prove that the virus can be used to prevent COVID-19.

Given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moderna is operating its vaccine trials at an accelerated rate. The second phase of its vaccine testing, which will involve 600 people rather than just 45, will begin soon. In July, the company hopes to test the vaccine on thousands of healthy people. The FDA has approved the second phase of these trials, and should the FDA eventually approve a third phase, this permission will mark the first time that Moderna has brought a vaccine to the third phase of a trial.

Moderna’s early results do not necessarily indicate that a vaccine is on the way. Historical precedent paints a grim picture for a possible COVID-19 vaccine, as neither the U.S. nor the U.K. has previously approved a vaccine to prevent the six other coronaviruses that infect humans. Four of these coronaviruses are known to cause mild, cold-like illnesses among those infected. The other two viruses are the severe respiratory illnesses SARS and MERS, which first appeared in humans in 2002 and 2012. Though a vaccine has never been invented for the latter virus, which still causes occasional small outbreaks, the former virus disappeared within two years of its first appearance – a fate that, hopefully, COVID-19 will share, vaccine or not.

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