As The World Struggles To Contain Coronavirus, Scientists Race To Develop Vaccine

Mar 7, 2020
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As the world struggles to try to contain the coronavirus, scientists are racing to develop one of medicine's most powerful weapons, a vaccine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: A few times this week, President Trump said wrongly that a vaccine is closer than it really is. Where are we really?

STEIN: Yeah. So there are a bunch of vaccines in the pipeline already. In fact, doctors are about to start injecting at least one of them into people very soon within the next few weeks to see, first of all, if it's safe. That's a vaccine that was developed by the National Institutes of Health in record time, actually. I just talked with Lisa Jackson about this. She's at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. And she's in charge of testing this vaccine in people for the first time.

LISA JACKSON: You know, we found out about this new virus in January. And now, you know, we have vaccine supply to conduct a trial in March. And that's unprecedented. That is so rapid.

SIMON: So, Rob, do we know how this vaccine works?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, we're used to thinking about vaccines being made out of the actual virus that we're fighting - you know, from weakened or dead versions of the virus. But this vaccine is nothing like that. It's made out of genetic code. And that code tells cells in the body to make a protein - it's called a spike protein - that this coronavirus uses to infect our bodies. The idea is that this will set off kind of an alarm in our immune systems to crank out antibodies so we're ready to fight off this virus if we're ever exposed to it. And so far, it looks like it's working, at least in experiments where they injected it into mice. So Jackson has already started recruiting dozens of volunteers in Seattle to be the first people to get it to, first, start to see if it's safe.

SIMON: Now, that sounds promising, but there's a distance to go, isn't there?

STEIN: Yes, yes. I'm sorry to say that it's not going to be ready anytime soon. Here's Lisa Jackson again talking about this.

JACKSON: We're working as fast as possible because we're faced with this crisis. But, you know, we're not going to have a vaccine for a year and a half.

SIMON: As we report every day, people are getting sick now. Why does it take a year and a half?

STEIN: So it just takes time to make a totally new vaccine like this. Even if it looks like it's safe, doctors have to then test it in a lot more people to make sure that's the case. You know, remember; this is something you're going to be giving to healthy people - potentially millions of healthy people, many of whom may never actually catch the virus or get very sick. So even a small risk could end up doing a lot of harm. Here's Nelson Michael of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He talked about this a couple days ago at a briefing at the Pentagon, which is also trying to make a vaccine.

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NELSON MICHAEL: You, at first, don't want to do harm, right? And so part of the hesitation to say, oh, we can get a vaccine quickly, is you need to make sure that it's really safe. If you test the vaccine on a thousand people but 1 in 10,000 people are going to have something terrible that happens, you may end up doing mass vaccination campaigns with a vaccine that could cause a significant amount of problems.

STEIN: So, you know, you have to test it on thousands of people to make sure it's safe and make sure it actually works. So all that takes time.

SIMON: And is it likely, Rob, that they could develop a vaccine that could avoid this virus recurring yearly?

STEIN: You know, so a vaccine - it certainly would be a powerful tool to try to get this outbreak under control. Unfortunately, a vaccine won't come in time to prevent this from coming back next winter if it turns out to have a seasonal pattern, you know, like the flu. But if it does come roaring back or is just still around, a vaccine may at least be far enough along to try to push forward with the testing.

SIMON: So what is the point if it's going to take that long to have one?

STEIN: Well, you know, if we're lucky, we could get this current outbreak under control or it might kind of peter out on its own over the spring and the summer, but maybe not. And it might come back next winter like the flu. Or it could, you know, peter out, but then another nasty coronavirus could erupt down the road. So whatever happens, public health experts say we should be ready with a vaccine. Here's Lisa Jackson again.

JACKSON: If nothing else, even if it completely goes away and that's the last we ever see of this particular virus, you know, the phenomena that led to this virus is going to happen again as this nexus of, you know, animals and humans and the jump in certain viruses that have circulated in animals into humans, so we need to be more prepared.

SIMON: NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.