America is still more than a year away from a COVID-19 vaccine, but a treatment for the disease caused by the new coronavirus could be available in several months.
Since the first case was identified in the U.S. on January 21, more than 560 people have tested positive for the virus, including instances of community spread in multiple states. As cases increase, so does public concern about the virus, raising questions about the progress that’s being made on a vaccine and a cure.
Thanks to the rapid sequencing of the virus’ genetic sequences, experts have been able to develop a potential vaccine at an unprecedented pace. Clinical trials are expected to start less than six months after the virus was identified in humans for the first time. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said it would be more than a year until the vaccine is widely administered.
“The good news is that we did it fast. The bad news is the reality of vaccinology means this is not going to be something we’re going to have tomorrow,” Fauci told a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 4.
It’s likely health professionals will have a treatment before a vaccine, according to Fauci. Several options have already been administered to animals, and trials are underway in Washington state and the University of Nebraska for a drug called remdesivir.
If it’s at least “somewhat effective” in reducing the viral load, the intervention could be available in the next “several months,” Fauci said.
To determine the drug’s efficacy, participants were divided into a placebo group and a treatment group. On the first day, the treatment group received 200 milligrams of remdesivir and 100 milligrams on each subsequent day, for up to 10 days. The placebo group received a solution that resembles remdesivir at equal volumes.
On March 2, President Donald Trump and members of the Coronavirus Task Force discussed how the federal government could accelerate vaccine and treatment development with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Trump claimed they were “working very hard” to expedite the process of bringing a vaccine to the public but acknowledged that a treatment would “likely” be available first.
“It always goes faster than vaccine, because you’re dealing with someone who is already sick,” Fauci said. “So the safety issues are going to be much, much different. And you will know your result almost immediately, whereas with vaccines it takes a long time.”
Biotechnology company Moderna shipped its first batch of a potential vaccine to the NIAID on February 24, and a trial is expected to begin in about four weeks. After the Phase I trial, which is expected to take three to four months, a larger trial involving hundreds of people will be conducted over six to eight months, according to Fauci.
Daniel O’Day, chairman and CEO of Gilead Sciences, which makes remdesivir, told Trump his company should know whether the treatment is effective at some point in April.
According to Fauci, if a company knows by June that the treatment is effective, a company can scale it up, manufacture it and “you’re good to go.”
Newsweek reached out to the NIAID for comment but did not receive a response before publication.
Antivirals are much less strain-specific than vaccines because they target parts of the virus that don’t change as easily, Dr. William Haseltine, chair and president of ACCESS Health International, told Newsweek. So researchers can develop a potential antiviral for a coronavirus strain before an outbreak even occurs.
However, Nicole Errett, a disaster researcher at the University of Washington, said that this requires government investment because pharmaceutical companies have less of a vested interest in developing a product for a market that doesn’t yet exist.
After three coronavirus outbreaks in 20 years—severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome and now SARS-CoV-2—it’s an investment that needs to be made, Haseltine said,
“These diseases are as much a natural disaster as earthquakes and hurricanes,” he noted. “We can’t prevent natural disasters, but we can certainly prepare for them, and we should treat these the same way we treat other natural disasters.”