By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A new coronavirus variant has raised new—and old—questions about vaccines. The Omicron mutation of COVID-19 has only been public knowledge for a few weeks, but has caused a global impact. Vaccine development has evolved, too.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has already done damage to stock markets around the world amid rumors of its resistance to vaccines and our immune systems. Meanwhile, some public health experts who had expressed a hesitancy to endorse a full rollout of COVID booster shots for all Americans seemed to change their minds after learning about Omicron. Meanwhile, Moderna’s chief medical officer said an Omicron vaccine could be ready as soon as early 2022.
This variant of the coronavirus will take time to study and be fully understood. While we wait for the dust to settle and definitive answers to arrive, what we know about the development of vaccines can serve as a solid first step to conquering our fears and concerns. Dr. Barry C. Fox, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, outlined how vaccine development has changed and how it pertains to COVID.
A Decade … Or Sometimes a Few Months
COVID-19 is not the first coronavirus. Its closest well-known relatives are SARS and MERS, both of which were studied for years. Due to the genetic similarities among them, some of the data about SARS and MERS was read by those developing COVID-19 vaccines, which is why they began to be made available only a year or so after outbreak. According to Moderna’s chief medical officer, the same quick timeline for an Omicron vaccine could mean that one would be ready in just a few months. Having existing, related data dramatically cuts down on the timetable for developing a vaccine.
In terms of getting quick progress made for lots of other medical ailments, the speed isn’t so fast.
“Vaccine development has been a long, complex process and sometimes lasts a decade or more, and involves a combination of public and private resources,” Dr. Fox said. “Vaccines are developed, tested, and regulated in a manner very similar to antibiotics. This includes oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in collaboration with the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office.”
When done from scratch, the exploratory stage of developing a vaccine lasts two to four years, Dr. Fox said, and consists of “basic laboratory research.” Preclinical activities use cultures and animals to test a vaccine’s safety, and many never make it past this point. If they do, the sponsor of the vaccine submits an application for an “Investigational New Drug” to the FDA.
“If approved, it goes through three stages of rigorous testing, including clinical studies with human subjects in small, then larger, then larger groups,” Dr. Fox said. “Of course, the safety is tested as well as the efficacy. If successful, it’s usually approved.”
Four Types of Vaccines
Vaccine development has changed drastically in the last 200 years, as has most science and medicine—hence the absence of leeches in hospitals. Without getting into the very gruesome specifics, it’s best just to say that live versions of viruses used to be introduced into the bodies of healthy people by using knives and infected people. Thankfully, things have changed.
“Vaccines can be made in several different ways—first, using live viruses but weak enough not to cause disease,” Dr. Fox said. “Secondly, using inactivated or killed bacteria or viruses, such as polio vaccines in the United States and most influenza (flu) vaccines. Thirdly, using inactivated toxins known as toxoids of bacterial germs, such as diphtheria and tetanus. And fourth, using a portion of the germ coating—for example, the sugar coating of pneumococcus.”
Why not just use one kind, like inactivated bacteria or viruses, across the board? Dr. Fox said that different microorganisms require more ideal targets to maximize our bodies’ immune responses. One example he gave is that for all the years scientists have been studying a possible HIV vaccine, the ideal target for vaccination has yet to reveal itself.
Is the Omicron variant more resistant to vaccinations and to human immune systems? Can a vaccine specifically tailored for it really come out by early 2022? How effective are the original COVID vaccinations and their boosters when it comes to Omicron? Unfortunately, these questions will take time to answer with certainty. In the meantime, being cautious regarding germ spread, but not panicking, seems to be the most prominent advice.