President Trump doubled down on his optimism that researchers in the U.S. will be able to develop a vaccine for coronavirus by the end of the year in a virtual town hall with Fox News on Sunday, but that timeline is leaving some experts scratching their heads.
Echoing the timeline from Dr. Fauci, the White House’s own lead medical professional on the coronavirus task force who has guided to a longer timeline of 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Mark Poznansky warned that the scientific unknowns surrounding the new virus likely dictate that the process will probably extend into 2021.
“The 12 to 18 months that we have been hearing from Dr. Fauci sort of makes sense,” Dr. Poznansky, who also serves as the Director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Yahoo Finance. “There are maybe areas of that that can be shortened, but the end of the year sounds aggressive at best.”
Mainly, Poznansky highlighted that while it would be possible to shave time off the development of a vaccine, it might not be safe to do so. Beyond that, because so little is currently known about the normal immune response to COVID-19, Poznansky posited that it could even take to the end of the year to have all those questions answered — let alone the process of building out and distributing the actual vaccine to humans.
“The devil is in the detail and no one wants to look at the detail,” he said. “The detail is, as of today, we don't yet know what a protective immune response to the virus is. So we're building a vaccine to generate a protective response that we don't quite yet know what it is. So whether that will be three months, six months or a year is the fundamental sort of biology of this that you almost can't get away from.”
Distribution of a vaccine
Philanthropists like Microsoft founder Bill Gates through his Gates Foundation have offered to help expedite production of a vaccine once the important unknowns are answered. But even then, as emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University School of Public Health Dr. Leana Wen told Yahoo Finance, it’s important to keep in mind that a vaccine for something that spreads as quickly as coronavirus is only truly useful once it’s widely distributed to the population.
“Even if we have a vaccine by the end of the year, that doesn't mean we'll have vaccinations,” she said. “I think that's really important because even if you have a drug approved and it's effective, it's only going to be effective if everybody is able to receive the vaccine. The idea of getting millions of doses, maybe billions produced by the end of the year and for us to have gone through the clinical trials, that seems like a pretty big stretch to me.”
To be fair, the Trump administration has fast tracked promising drug treatments during the outbreak — mainly shepherding the FDA’s approval of Gilead’s Remdesivir for use in patients with COVID-19. Similar exceptions could be made for a vaccine to expedite development, but Poznansky said that shouldn’t be used reliably in laying out a timeline.
“If some of those hurdles get removed that will make a difference, but at the moment I’d stick with the most likely time table of 12 to 18 months,” he said.