co-workers sneezing and spreading germs

Medical researchers around the globe are working together to learn as much about the coronavirus as possible in a short amount of time. They’re saving lives and helping us safely return to school and work in the upcoming months.

Pathogen: Friend or Dangerous Enemy?

Viruses are practically as varied as we humans are. There are millions of strains, each one with its own size, shape, behavior, and other characteristics. Not to mention their ability to adapt and mutate. 

Although scientists have encountered other SARS viruses, CoV-2 only recently “jumped” to a human host. It takes time to determine how it gets transmitted, whether or not it could quickly mutate, and what types of medications might be effective in treating the flu-like respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

An infection occurs when an aggressive pathogen makes its way into the human body and begins to attack healthy cells. Toxins are released and the normal functioning of the host cells is interrupted

A Vaccine This Year?

Creating a vaccine for a “novel” virus is usually a complex and time-consuming process involving years of lab work and clinical trials. Medical researchers first obtain a sample of the virus and reproduce it in a laboratory to study its structure and function. The goal is to determine just how contagious the virus is, the incubation time before the onset of symptoms, and the progression of the disease that the virus causes.

Next, they extract an antigen, a small fragment of protein from the outer shell of the virus. They inactivate or weaken the antigen and place it in a solution with preservatives and other additives that could help amplify an immune response. When the vaccine is given, the B-cells of a healthy immune system will identify the weakened antigen and produce specific antibodies that prompt the T-cells into action. The T-cells of the adaptive immune system are then “armed” to recognize and destroy the live virus.

At this stage, the new vaccine proceeds to clinical trials:

Phase 1: The vaccine is given to a small number of individuals, 10-20 people. Researchers at this phase are only documenting any side effects to make sure the medication is being safely tolerated. Most importantly, they’re taking blood samples to determine their patients’ immune response to the vaccine.

Phase 2: Researchers then administer the vaccine to a larger group of test subjects. This time, they’re trying to more precisely determine the effective dosage, it’s effect on different age groups, the number of vaccinations an individual might need, and again monitoring blood tests to make sure the patient’s immune response is as strong as it needs to be to fight off a live virus.

Phase 3: The objective of this phase is to prove that the vaccine is effective against the virus it was designed to target. The vaccine is usually given to a large test group and might involve a control group receiving a placebo.

Lastly, any new medications developed in the U.S. are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. A license for the new vaccine has to be approved, the production facilities are inspected, and quality controls have to be in place to test the vials for safety and purity.

Even after the vaccine is distributed, the FDA and the CDC continue to monitor it’s use. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, is an organization that collects information about reported side effects or other safety concerns of new vaccines.