Powerful New Technologies Are Speeding the Development of a Coronavirus Vaccine

A lab tech handling a sample of the novel coronavirus.

(© JHDT Productions/Adobe)


One of the main factors that will influence the ultimate trajectory of the novel coronavirus pandemic will be the availability of a vaccine.

Vaccine development has traditionally been a process measured in years and even decades.

Vaccines are incontrovertibly the best means to control infectious diseases and there are no human vaccines against any of the (now) 7 known human coronaviruses. As soon as the gravity of this outbreak was recognized, several companies, along with governmental and non-governmental partners, have embarked on a rapid development program to develop a vaccine targeted at this virus.

Vaccine development has traditionally been a process measured in years and even decades as scientists tinker with a pathogen trying to weaken or dissemble it to render it capable of creating an effective immune response with acceptable levels of side effects. However, in 2020, powerful new vaccine technologies are available to augment traditional vaccine development and are responsible for the rapid delivery of a vaccine candidate for the start of clinical trials.

Vaccine Platforms: A Game-Changing Technology

The new technologies that are being harnessed are what are known as vaccine platform technologies. Vaccine platforms, as my colleagues and I wrote in a report assessing their promise, offer a means to use the same building blocks to make more than one vaccine. To slightly oversimply, a vaccine platform confers the ability to switch out the pathogen being targeted very rapidly, akin to changing a video game cartridge. Indeed, the recently FDA-licensed Ebola vaccine uses another virus as a platform with the requisite Ebola protein inserted.

Because of this rapid availability to utilize platforms for a variety of different targets, the initial development process can be significantly shortened. This is especially true for vaccines utilizing the genetic material of the target alone. These DNA and RNA vaccines basically can be "printed" once the genetic sequence of the target is known.

An RNA vaccine is the approach being used by the Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna – which took just 42 days to produce an experimental vaccine candidate. Clinical testing is expected to begin next month on 45 healthy volunteers.

Another biotech, the Pennsylvania-based Inovio, is using a DNA approach. In essence, such vaccines involve the genetic material being injected and translated into a viral protein by human cells, which then prompt the immune system to make antibodies.

There are other approaches as well. One company, the Maryland-based Novavax, will use nanoparticles, while another is attempting to adapt an orally administered avian coronavirus vaccine and Johnson & Johnson is using different virus platforms to deliver coronavirus proteins (similar to their experimental Ebola vaccine).

At this stage, it is important for all approaches to be on the table in the hope that at least one makes it through clinical trials. There also may be a need for different types of vaccines for different populations.

Vaccines Will Still Take Time

Despite the quick development time made possible by the use of vaccine platforms, clinical testing for safety, efficacy, and dosing schedules will still take months to complete. After this process, the vaccine will need to be mass produced in large quantities to vaccinate, basically, the world. So, for all intents and purposes, we cannot expect to see an approved vaccine for at least a year or maybe longer if everything does not go perfectly well in clinical trials.

Vaccine platform technologies offer a bright ray of hope in the bleak shadow of the pandemic.

Once a vaccine is available, it will likely appear in batches to be distributed to those at highest risk for severe disease, such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions, as well as healthcare workers, first. At this time, it appears children are less likely to experience severe illness and they may not be the first targets for the vaccine but, if this virus is with us (as is predicted), coronavirus vaccination could become part of routine childhood vaccinations.

Changing Pandemic Trajectory

Vaccination will not come fast enough to impact the initial wave of the novel virus which may continue until summer approaches in temperate climates. However, it will be a crucial tool to blunt the impact of a future appearance in the following respiratory virus season. This reappearance is all but assured as this virus has adeptly established itself in human populations and is behaving like the community-acquired coronavirus that it is.

A Glimmer of Hope

When looking at the trajectory of the virus, it can appear, thus far, that no public health effort has made a substantial impact on the spread of the virus. However, that trajectory will change with the advent of an efficacious vaccine. Such a vaccine, especially if conferring protection against other human coronaviruses, may result in coronaviruses being taken off the table of biological threats altogether in the future.

Vaccine platform technologies offer a bright ray of hope in the bleak shadow of the pandemic and, if successful, will change the way the world approaches future pandemic threats with more rapid deployment of platform-based vaccines.

Amesh A. Adalja

Dr. Adalja is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity. He has served on US government panels tasked with developing guidelines for the treatment of plague, botulism, and anthrax in mass casualty settings and the system of care for infectious disease emergencies, and as an external advisor to the New York City Health and Hospital Emergency Management Highly Infectious Disease training program, as well as on a FEMA working group on nuclear disaster recovery. Dr. Adalja is an Associate Editor of the journal Health Security. He was a coeditor of the volume Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, a contributing author for the Handbook of Bioterrorism and Disaster Medicine, the Emergency Medicine CorePendium, Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, UpToDate's section on biological terrorism, and a NATO volume on bioterrorism. He has also published in such journals as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Emerging Infectious Diseases, and the Annals of Emergency Medicine. He is a board-certified physician in internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases, and critical care medicine. Follow him on Twitter: @AmeshAA

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In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
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"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.

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Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is the summer editor of Leaps.org. Most recently, she was a staff writer covering biotech at OneZero, Medium's tech and science publication. Before that, she was the associate editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review. Her stories on science and medicine have also appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and STAT.