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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

Why is there still no vaccine for the coronavirus?

If we can manage to contain influenza with an annual vaccination, why is there no vaccine for the potentially deadly coronavirus? Unfortunately it's not that simple. .

After the novel coronavirus reared its head in Wuhan, China, the death toll increased rapidly, and the virus spread to other countries around the globe.

The death toll has surpassed 100 and new cases were discovered in Ivory Coast on the African continent and in Germany.

Where is the new coronavirus most likely to spread?

In casual conversation, people are asking questions like “Why don’t they simply develop a vaccine?” or “How can we keep ourselves safe if the virus spreads so easily from one human to the next?”

Scientists are in the process of developing a vaccine, but it’s not that simple.

Is there a vaccine for the coronavirus in the works right now?

According to reports, work on a vaccine for coronavirus strains has been going on since the SARS and MERS outbreaks, initiated by multiple organisations, including the University of Washington where it is funded by the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). 

According to the NIAID, they were awarded two contracts in August 2013 to do advanced research on new treatments and vaccines specifically for MERS through its Preclinical Models of Infectious Disease programme.

How will such a vaccine work?

Looking at MERS, scientists saw that the coronavirus enters cells using a protein known as a spike or an “S-protein”. After entering the cell, the virus starts delaying a normal, healthy immune response, allowing infection to brew in the body.

The aim of scientists is to find a way to stop this so-called spike or S-protein from delaying the immune response.

Other research teams are working towards a live vaccination that contains a weakened living microbe of the virus (like the flu vaccine).

Has any work been done involving the latest strain of coronavirus?

Unfortunately, no. The research is based on the previous strains that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks as scientists were previously not aware of the existence of this new strain. This is what makes the process so challenging.

Read more: 5 things you need to know about the latest strain of coronavirus 

But is there any hope if the virus keeps on mutating?

Just like the influenza virus, the coronavirus operates stealthily, changing its shape and forming new strains. But since this is the third major outbreak caused by a coronavirus, scientists are investigating and organisations are considering investments in the development of a vaccine that will be able to broadly protect a person against any strain of coronavirus.

How long will it take to develop a vaccine? And what is currently being done?

According to a report published in the New York Times, a team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland have started on laboratory work to establish the letters of the genetic code that can be used to make a vaccine based on the latest strain of the coronavirus.

They started by using the templates of previous SARS vaccine research and simply swapped the genetic code to make it work for the new virus.

There are also scientists in Australia and at least three large pharmaceutical companies doing research on vaccines against this latest outbreak.

While this is good news, developing a vaccine is a lengthy process and not as simple as it sounds. Developing a vaccine that is approved for clinical use will likely take months.

Will we be protected from such outbreaks in the future?

Experts believe that the possibility and frequency of such outbreaks can increase due to climate change, dense urban population and the ease of global travel – emphasising the need for quick action.  

Dr Peter Hortez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development was involved in work on the production of a vaccine for the SARS virus that can possibly be reworked for this new strain of coronavirus. He is quoted in the New York Times saying that it is probably important to start thinking about creating a special infrastructure for the coronavirus in the same way as for flu.

“We’re just starting to realise that the power of vaccines goes way beyond public health. They are also critical to the global economy and global security."

According to reports, a more proactive approach, rather than reactive, is needed to curb these outbreaks in the future.

Image credit: iStock