A number of research groups around the world are racing to find a vaccine for coronavirus as it continues to spread globally. But while we have some of the world's brightest minds on the case, a vaccine is still months, potentially even years away.
The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, outbreak has spread to more than 150 countries and is sitting at more than 180,000 confirmed cases. These huge numbers make it one of the worst outbreaks seen in living generations and with no natural immunity and limited understanding of how the virus survives, a number of vaccine projects are under works.
Vaccines inject weakened or killed portions of the virus so the body can learn how best to fight it without the virus taking over the body. The idea is that once the disease or virus returns later on in life, the body will have learned what to do and will be in better stead to fight it off quickly. It's because of this that many deadly and infectious diseases, like polio and smallpox, have been virtually wiped off the map. But a lot goes into manufacturing a vaccine before they're distributed to the masses.
Professor Ian Henderson, a microbiology expert at University of Queensland, explained there are a number of things to take into consideration such as how the vaccine affects different age groups and whether it can be produced in large quantities.
"An effective vaccine must boost immunity to the infectious agent and must sustain protection over long periods. The vaccine must protect those groups of people most at risk such as the elderly," Professor Henderson said.
But caution has to be taken to make sure the potential vaccine causes the right immune responses as opposed to faltering even further — something referred to as immunopathology.
"In addition, the vaccine must not exacerbate the infection by causing immunopathology on exposure to the infecting agent. Finally, the antigens for the vaccine must be capable of being produced in large quantities."
Even in the case of the seasonal flu, which returns every year with a modified strain, a vaccine still takes months to produce.
"It is produced in millions of doses every year using a well-established process," Professor Henderson said. "Yet, even with the pathways for production, and with safety and efficacy procedures already established, it takes 6 months to produce."
There are 15 potential vaccines in the works, Professor Henderson said, but many of them will take a minimum of six months before they're ready for human trials. If they're successful, they then need to go into production, which requires procuring all the necessary resources and then producing it for the affected population — which by then could total into the millions. All of that takes a lot of time.
With COVID-19 being a part of the same family as MERS and SARS, however, scientists are looking at existing vaccines of the previously known viruses and seeing if they can be applied to this one.
"Due to the genetic relatedness of the viruses, there may be some cross-protection from using a SARS/MERS vaccine while awaiting COVID-19 vaccine," Professor Henderson.
"However, this would require close monitoring of small groups of vaccinated individuals in areas where there is active transmission of the current virus."
Professor Henderson said there are four potential SARS/MERS vaccines undergoing clinical trials. So far, they've been found to be safe but their effectiveness was not comprehensive at this stage.
For now, it's just a waiting game to see whether governments can respond to the crisis with measures focused on flattening the curve of infection. Professor Henderson said while the pandemic will eventually pass, he hoped it would serve as a reminder for future governments of the omnipresent threat of unknown infectious diseases.
"This epidemic will eventually peter out, and as history demonstrates, people's memory of the scale and difficulties posed by the current outbreak will gradually blur," Professor Henderson said.
"However, we must not forget the lessons learned from this crisis. The lessons learned now will provide a roadmap for the response to future outbreaks."
People travelling into Australia will now have to self-isolate for 14 days – one of a range of measures announced at the weekend by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with the aim of slowing the spread of the coronavirus and easing the stress on hospital beds.