Researchers are continuing to look for a vaccine for the...

Researchers are continuing to look for a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus. Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto / Alex011973

Where’s the vaccine?

It’s the question worried people around the globe are asking. But the answer isn’t simple.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has now claimed its first American victim, and has killed at least 2,800 people and sickened 84,000 worldwide, exposes the complexities of developing treatments and vaccines as new diseases emerge. It also raised questions about the preparedness of public health infrastructure, as well as private research labs and the pharmaceutical industry, to address a potential pandemic. All need to do more, during this crisis and before the next one, to focus on highly transmittable viruses like COVID-19.

Troublingly, the overall response has been only reactive to the urgency of an intense, scary outbreak. It has been a somewhat chaotic effort to try to find the right therapeutics, a vaccine, and an anti-viral medication, as well as accurate and predictive testing to guide emergency measures to contain the outbreak.

While many researchers focus their study on infectious diseases, there are also strong signs that there hasn’t been enough ongoing, long-term planning and investment to develop protective drugs. With more of that, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and health officials would be more prepared, and further along in their work ahead of the next pandemic.

Scrambling after outbreak

Scientists have scrambled since the outbreak began, and some think they’re close to the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. But the reality is that getting a vaccine ready for wide use takes time, and we’re likely still more than a year away from having a vaccine that can be utilized and distributed, in part due to the need for animal, and then human, testing.

There’s hope, however, for faster results. Farmingdale-based biotech startup Codagenix said Friday it might have a vaccine ready for human testing by May. And President Donald Trump said Saturday that a meeting with pharmaceutical executives to discuss vaccine development was planned for Monday. 

Unfortunately, there’s also a chance that a vaccine might not be effective, especially as reports emerge that patients who supposedly recovered then tested positive again. That means it may be more difficult to find a way for patients to develop immunity to the virus.

Beyond vaccines, researchers are also looking to develop anti-viral medications or other treatments to fight the virus. A clinical trial of one such drug, previously tested for use in treating Ebola, began at the University of Nebraska last week.

That’s notable, because it shows how the work scientists have done on previous infectious diseases can be applicable here. It’s clear that the battle for treatment and vaccines might have been easier if there were a more constant commitment to research even without a crisis. Short sightedly, the work by pharmaceutical firms on developing a vaccine against SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) stopped when the epidemic slowed in 2003, only to be picked up now, as coronavirus spreads. SARS itself fell into the coronavirus category, and the similarities could help researchers find an answer for COVID-19.

Worldwide challenge

Part of the problem may lie in the lack of investment worldwide in public health. Bill Gates, whose foundation is contributing $100 million toward the coronavirus response, noted in an essay on the New England Journal of Medicine website Friday that billions of dollars of investment will be necessary. Given the social and economic ramifications of the virus, he wrote, “it will be a bargain.”

He’s right. Beyond public investment, private pharmaceutical companies, too, need to make better choices. Focusing on the amorphous possibility of an infectious disease outbreak when there’s not a crisis might not bring much attention. But without doing so, the world is left on precarious footing when a possible pandemic occurs. Leaving everything to industry means profit takes precedence over the safety and health of millions of people.

Internationally, and particularly here in the United States, public health officials must take on a greater role in the longer-term response. That means fully staffing and funding our public health agencies — and not just when there’s a crisis at hand. And it means letting top public health officials take the lead. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci should brief regularly during the current outbreak.

Getting it right

Trump was incorrect when he said Wednesday that as a businessman, he thought it was better to add health staff only when necessary. That’s a troubling view, one that leaves us back in crisis mode when the next virus emerges. Beyond staffing, there’s an opportunity to invest in and incentivize private research on viruses like COVID-19 and whatever mutations might come. This is one area where private companies could and should work together. A global approach under the guidance of the World Health Organization, where the best experts can figure out what works, is superior to individual corporations or governments working in silos.

More immediately, it’s incumbent upon public and private entities to work together to fund and find treatments for COVID-19, to ramp up testing efforts, and to expedite work on vaccination. But if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it should be that the spotlight on these issues must remain even after this outbreak.

It’s possible that the coronavirus won’t be as horrific as some experts fear. If that’s the case, we will all breathe a small sigh of relief.

But don’t abandon the work that must be done to combat the next big virus — one that could be even more virulent and deadly.

— The editorial board

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