As restrictions begin being lifted, businesses look toward reopening, and schools plan for students’ and faculty’s return in autumn, the question on everybody’s mind may very well be something along the lines of “Will we be ready?” or “Is this safe?” While organizations are working diligently to create and maintain proper guidelines to protect health as the U.S. moves toward reopening, threats of a dreaded second wave of the novel coronavirus and questions about when these precautions will no longer be necessary loom. What everyone is truly wondering is when we will finally be able to return en masse to normalcy.
The answer, like everything having to do with COVID-19, is complicated. Because of the virus’s novel nature, so much is unknown about its long term health effects, its true infectiousness and the real number of people who are positive for the virus, and how its repercussions will be felt for years to come. All of this makes progress toward returning to “normal” a bit hazy, as making important decisions with such limited information prevents the possibility of making educated, strategic plans to return to what was normal before the outbreak of the disease. But this return rides on one major development still in the making: the development of a vaccine.
The development of a SARS=CoV-2 vaccine is imperative for a true return to normal. See, while the flatten the curve mentality was designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system, as hospitals rely on the use of ventilators, and N95 masks to slow the spread, to tend to serious cases of the virus, it was never meant to stop the spread. Merely, it drug out the matriculation of the disease through the population, controlling the rate of spread so that it was manageable. The only thing that can halt COVID-19’s infection of the population is by developing “herd immunity,” which is when a majority of the population cannot be infected, and therefore cannot contribute to the spread of the virus. To achieve this, there are 2 primary schools of thought, and the first one is pretty scary looking.
The first and most basic (but dangerous) way to achieve herd immunity is to essentially let the virus run its course, with the hope that at some point, so many will have already been infected and recovered that infection rates will peak and then slow, as those infected would have developed immunity since having the virus. However, this model assumes that coronavirus behaves like the chicken pox, so that those who have been infected and recovered from the disease cannot contract it again. Unfortunately, we do not yet know enough about the virus’s behavior to definitively say that the virus is a one-time infection, providing immunity to it once recovered. Furthermore, this model would rely on potentially years of social-distancing measures, continuing to flatten the curve over incredibly long periods of time, hoping that the virus will not undergo any deadly mutations, and preventing our return to normal for maybe even years to come. Overall, not a sound option.
The second way to achieve herd immunity is via immunizations, ie. the development and administration of a vaccine. Thankfully, this is already underway. Around the world, billions of dollars are being spent by big pharma and governments to aid in research and development to
combat COVID-19. There are four different primary methods to develop a vaccine, but all operate on the same principle: by introducing a tiny amount of the disease into the body, the immune system can learn to fight it off, thus causing the body’s natural defenses to develop immunity. However, the road toward any drug development is often a slow one, and expediting the development of a vaccine without exercising enough caution could have potentially pernicious repercussions. Medicine cannot be rushed, and there are many different approaches and steps to development of an immunization, especially one as important as this.
Researchers say it would be a feat to bring a new drug to market by January 1, 2021, as new drugs typically take upwards of two years to complete their development and elaborate trial process, which includes lab tests, animal and human trials,production and distribution. The process is difficult and involves lots of moving variables -- should the test drug fail to perform or have serious side effects at any stage, it’s back to the drawing board. However, there are 3 major factors that may help to expedite the process of approving a coronavirus immunization.
Firstly is the unprecedented amount of global collaboration that is going into the drug’s development. Because of SARS-CoV-2’s nature as a global pandemic, all countries are relying on each other to come up with creative solutions as quickly as possible.
Secondly is the technological advancements now available to scientists, which haven’t been part of the picture in pandemics past. Simply, researchers didn’t have these same tools and technology when developing things like the smallpox or polio vaccines. With genetic engineering and sequencing, as well as global communications, electron microscopes, and new visualization technologies, science is on our side.
Thirdly, the novel coronavirus has other coronavirus relatives that can be studied to help better our understanding of its nature, behavior, and composition. Because it is a coronavirus, its mutation rate is slow, and its composition is rather basic, unlike HIV or influenza. Therefore, combatting it will be less of a challenge when coupled with the previous 2 factors.
Keeping all this in mind when dealing with the urgency of the public health crisis caused by COVID-19, scientists are squaring up to face the challenge of creating and releasing a safe and effective vaccine by the target date of January 1, 2021, even though the task may be herculean, or even impossible, in nature.