While a number of countries have made progress in containing and controlling the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), even moving forward cautiously with “new normals” sans masks in public spaces, and restarted economies and in-person schools, the global situation remains dire. In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the highest single-day increase in global infections since the pandemic began. In the U.S., universities alone reported 45,000 new cases in the first few weeks of the fall semester and top health expert Anthony Fauci, responding publicly to optimism from President Donald Trump, countered by saying the situation in America has not yet “rounded the corner.”
It has become increasingly evident that some countries lack the national capacity or will to control the virus, and thus are banking on effective vaccine development and distribution. Indeed, as long as the virus is uncontrolled in any single jurisdiction it poses a global threat. Consequently, even those countries capable of control consider a vaccine necessary to protect themselves from subsequent resurgence of infection from foreign arrivals.
Several media outlets are running real-time vaccine updates sites, and with almost two dozen publicly known efforts underway, the constant trickle of developments makes it difficult to determine where precisely “we” are in terms of having a vaccine.
There are some indications that a vaccine might be available for some people as early as later this year or more broadly by mid-2021, but who precisely, where precisely, and when precisely remain as uncertain as whether any of them will actually work and do more good than harm.
COVID-19, like other coronaviruses, is tricky when it comes to vaccine development. Multi-year efforts to develop vaccines for the severe acute respiratory syndrome and the Middle East respiratory syndrome have not been successful yet given the specific ways these RNA viruses infect human cells. More importantly, it is difficult to create effective vaccines for diseases attacking the upper respiratory tract that don’t in turn create adverse reactions worse than the disease itself.
Further, new vaccines aiming at a virus that mutates quickly always face challenges. In COVID-19 these challenges are acute. For example, some studies indicate that its antibodies decay rapidly, within three months by some estimates, particularly among those who experienced mild forms of infection, and there’s no evidence yet that they ever confer immunity from a second infection. It’s not yet clear what this means for potential vaccine efficacy, but we do know that many of the vaccines currently under development require more than one dose.
Given the peculiarities of the disease and in many cases the competitive and non-cooperative approaches of some countries and companies, we might still be years from an effective global vaccine solution even if some viable vaccines emerge sooner. More pessimistic assessments suggest COVID-19 might be with us a lot longer than we hope—that we might have to learn to live with it as we have with other diseases like HIV/AIDS.
With that in mind, there have been some promising developments in learning how the disease attacks the body and why it affects some people worse than others.