The following was originally published as part of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s coronavirus coverage.
As the new coronavirus was becoming a global pandemic, researchers at Johns Hopkins began working on a vaccine. It’s no quick fix — it can take up to a year and a half for a vaccine for the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, just to move from the lab to human trials.
While some institutions have reported that they have a vaccine, and the first human study has started in Seattle, currently, no researchers have published studies showing a coronavirus vaccine that is safe and effective in humans.
Tzyy-Choou “TC” Wu, director of the gynecologic pathology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Chien-Fu Hung, associate professor of pathology and oncology and professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, run the Cervical Cancer Research Lab.
Wu and Hung studied severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2002 and 2003 and are drawing on their experience to research this new coronavirus.
What is the status of your vaccine for the new coronavirus?
We started working on a new coronavirus vaccine a month ago. We are testing one version of our vaccine on mice and should have initial results within weeks. We are ready to test another version in mice, and results from that should take one month.
When will a new coronavirus vaccine be ready?
It can take a year to a year and a half for a vaccine to be available for human trials.
What goes into making a coronavirus vaccine?
Several different countries isolated the new coronavirus, so its genetic sequence became available online. We can use that to find the protein that is critical for the virus to infect humans and use a portion of that protein to create a vaccine that will generate an antibody response to prevent the virus from infecting human cells.
We aim to do that either by making a DNA-based vaccine that contains genes that produce the virus’ protein, or by making a vaccine that includes a portion of the actual protein.
There are no DNA-based vaccines currently approved for humans, although there is a West Nile Virus DNA-based vaccine for horses. Protein-based vaccines include the hepatitis B vaccine.
For what type of patient is the new coronavirus vaccine being developed?
For now, our goal is to develop some protection against the new coronavirus infection for those who have a higher risk of getting it. That could include older patients and health care workers who are around patients carrying the coronavirus.
What are some of the issues involved in developing this vaccine?
The major challenge is the speed. Time is of the essence because every moment more people are getting infected. We can quickly come up with a vaccine in the lab and test it in animals. But it can take nine months to a year and a half to get to human clinical trials, which can be very difficult and require a lot of resources, whether that’s philanthropic or government grants.
There are toxicology studies, and three phases of human clinical trials. Coronavirus vaccines that are in development right now may be ready for clinical trials by the end of this year if they have the necessary resources. Everybody is working to be the first one to come up with a safe, effective vaccine.
How does this new coronavirus vaccine compare to other vaccines?
The new coronavirus continues to evolve, so we need to make sure the portion of the protein and its genetic sequence we are using to develop our vaccine will still be effective even if the virus mutates or changes. It’s also possible that the antibody a vaccine creates could actually make patients more susceptible to the virus rather than prevent it, so making sure the vaccine targets the right part of the virus is very important.
How much does it cost to bring a vaccine to the public?
To bring a DNA-based vaccine to human trials can cost around $1 million to $2 million, and to bring a protein-based vaccine to human trials can cost around $1.5 million to $3 million.
By the time a vaccine is ready, will we still need it?
Many experts suggest that we will. Some predict this will become like the common cold and disappear in the warmer months and come back in the winter in the United States. It’s also harder to detect because not all people infected with the virus have a fever or show other symptoms, and it’s more contagious than many other viruses, so it likely won’t disappear quickly.