Just to cut to the chase, we just do not know; but we may hope for one year and a half to two years, maybe less. And that will be great, but we have to distinguish between getting early evidence of efficacy and getting a vaccine ready for mass vaccination. But let’s consider background material that suggests it is likely we will indeed have a vaccine.
First, it is helpful to consider different mechanisms of immunity. There are two general types of immunity, innate and adaptive. The innate system is quick and dirty and recognizes general patterns widely shared by pathogens, such as double stranded RNA or bacterial lipopolysaccharides, but not normally present. It is mediated through the activity of cytokines and involves inflammation. The other mechanism, the adaptive immune system, is slower to respond but more precise and is mediated through antibodies and cytotoxic T cells.
Second, there are several kinds of immunization. Transfusion of immune serum or of purified antibodies, called passive immunization, can protect temporarily against infection and disease. This is currently being tried in patients. Another type of immunization may induce a general innate immune response. Administration of some vaccines appear to induce a temporary immunity against viruses other than their targets, probably through stimulation of innate immunity. In theory, they should be able to protect against a relatively broad array of targets, which might include SARS-CoV2. This is likely the basis for the activities of BCG, which is used as immunotherapy against bladder cancer, for example. Phase 3 trials are currently enrolling subjects in Australia (BRACE) and the Netherlands (BCG-CORONA). More recently, Dr. Konstantin Chumakov (Food and Drug Administration, Office of Vaccines Research and Review) and Dr. Robert Gallo (Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore) of the Global Virus Network have suggested repurposing polio vaccine for use against SARS-CoV2 through its induction of innate immunity. Finally, targeted vaccines can stimulate both innate and adaptive immunity. Targeted vaccines are the most commonly used vaccines, as they are the most specific and can provide durable protection.
Is a targeted vaccine for SARS-CoV2 possible? Several lines of evidence suggest the answer is yes. Worry number one is whether immune responses to the virus will be protective. Sera from infected rhesus monkeys and infected people can neutralize the virus, indicating it is possible to generate an effective response given an appropriate stimulus. A second concern is that the virus will mutate rapidly and escape the immunity induced by vaccines. However, available sequence data suggest the overall genetic variability might be low. The virus has an RNA proofreading mechanism that reduces its mutation rate. A hopeful finding is that immune sera from people infected with the SARS1 virus (which is only 79% related at the whole genome level) neutralizes the SARS2 virus, suggesting elicited immunity will be broadly reactive. Similarly, a monoclonal antibody has been reported that neutralizes both SARS-CoV1 and SARS-CoV2.
There are many antibody-based passive immunization approaches with human and animal serum and recovered antibodies in pre-clinical development. There are also currently more than 200 targeted vaccines in widely various stages of development, including at least seven phase 1 or 2 clinical trials, and there are currently at least eight different approaches to developing a vaccine. One approach is simply to inject one or more of the viral proteins. Two other approaches involve injection and cellular take-up of either RNA or DNA encoding one or more viral proteins. Two other approaches involve vaccination with a heterologous viral vector derived from adenovirus, lentivirus, measles, or influenza virus, which has been engineered to express SARS-CoV2 proteins. These viral vectors can be either replication incompetent or able to replicate to various extents. Another type of vaccine vehicle is a virus-like particle (VLP), made artificially from viral proteins but lacking a viral genome. The SARS-CoV2 protein of interest is attached to the outer surface of the VLP. The other two vaccine approaches use whole SARS-CoV2 virus, either in killed form or attenuated so that its ability to replicate is severely compromised.
Obviously, testing for safety and efficacy is critical. Animal testing provides a way to obtain preliminary safety and efficacy data from candidate vaccines relatively quickly, because animals can be challenged with live virus. Drawbacks are that they may not accurately mimic the pathogenesis in humans and their immune responses may differ from that of humans. A study from China reported that vaccination with inactivated virus protected 8 rhesus macaques from viral challenge, but the numbers are small. The vaccinated macaques also developed antibodies able to neutralize different strains of the virus. They observed no harmful effects, including enhancement, in which a vaccine induces an immune response that makes infection more severe.
The gold standard in vaccine efficacy testing is obviously controlled clinical trials in humans. There are two ways to do this. One is with a large cohort of people from a group that has a high attack rate from the virus. Obvious, the more susceptible the test population, the fewer the numbers and shorter the time period required for a definitive answer. The most straightforward way, however, is to challenge vaccinated and unvaccinated unpaid volunteers with virus. This has the advantage that far fewer numbers are needed than in trials using an unchallenged general population, and results are obtained more quickly. However, such an approach is obviously fraught with ethical concerns.
As mentioned above, there are at least seven phase 1 or 2 trials of targeted vaccines now underway, several of which hope to have a vaccine by fall. An RNA-based vaccine by Moderna (clinical trials ID NCT04283461) has been reviewed by the FDA for phase 2 testing, and it is hoped to start phase 3 trials this summer. A Chinese whole killed virus vaccine candidate by Sinopharm (Chinese Clinical Trial Registry IdentifierChiCTR2000031809) has reached phase 2 status. The Oxford Vaccine Group is conducting a phase 1/2 trial with a vaccine (clinical trials ID NCT04324606) based on a chimp adenoviral vaccine vector that reportedly has shown protection in rhesus macaques. A vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, called BNT162, is based on modified RNA (clinical trial ID NCT04368728). A phase 1/2 trial is planned in Germany and the United States. Inovio’s vaccine, called INO4800, is a DNA-based vaccine. They are currently planning a phase 1 trial in the United States and a phase 1/2 trial in South Korea (clinical trials ID NCT04336410). CanSino Biologics has an adenovius 5-based vaccine candidate that the company announced has passed phase 1 trials and are initiating a phase 2 trial (clinical trials ID NCT04313127). Sinovac has initiated phase 1 trials with a vaccine candidate based on inactivated virus plus adjuvant (clinical trials ID NCT04352608).
With the large number of approaches, the relative genetic stability of the virus, and hopeful results from animal trials, it seems likely a vaccine will be successfully developed. The big question, of course, is how soon. The best case seems to be by fall of 2020. Pressure to speed up the schedule may spur further considerations of the ethics of human volunteer challenge studies. The development of better antiviral therapies may influence considerations of these types of trials, as it would make them somewhat safer.