How are new vaccines really created?

Over the past month and a half, most of us have been stuck inside. The only news that we’ve received about the novel coronavirus is that life can resume to normal once a vaccine has been generated. This really got me wondering, what do we need to create a vaccine. I always thought that you took old virus particles and injected them in, so that our bodies would build the antibodies required. You would only need about 1 month of testing then BOOM. A vaccine is made. Turns out, I was very wrong

(This video is for more in depth knowledge about the COVID-19 Vaccine)

A vaccine is in it’s most basic form, a weakened virus that our body can build antibodies for, so that if in case of a real viral infection, our body can produce enough antibodies to mark the virus. Antibodies are like big signs saying, “A VIRUS IS HERE.” A special cell in our body known as the B lymphocytes produces them to call in white blood cells to destroy them. Not all white blood cells are the same however. The ones that are commonly referred to as Macrophages consume dead and damaged viruses, whereas T-Cells can seek out cells near organs to destroy them. All vaccines serve the same purpose, however they are developed in different ways. Here is a short list some different vaccines.

  1. Attenuated vaccines: These vaccines are used for highly contagious viral infections such as measles or chickenpox. The way that these vaccines are probably the way that you’ve heard about. The viruses are toned down using special chemicals and are then injected so that you develop antibodies without actually infecting yourself.
  2. Inactivated vaccines: These vaccines are used for crippling highly dangerous viruses such as polio. These are dead viruses and bacteria. Essentially, the goal is to trick our body into developing antibodies. However, these vaccines don’t provide as much immunity as attenuated vaccines, so you may have to get 2 or 3 booster shots in your lifetime.
  3. Toxoid vaccines: These are vaccines for toxins produced by bacteria, such as the Tetanus shot. Very small doses of toxins are injected into our body, which teach our body to fight against it.

So now that we know some background information about vaccines, let’s address the main question once again. Why is it taking SO LONG to develop a Sars-Cov-2 vaccine?

Well, now that we have some basic information, we can deduce that the most likely choice of vaccine should be an attenuated virus due to the contagious nature of the virus and need for strong immunity. But why haven’t we done anything yet?

Well the first obstacle that these companies must overcome is the testing process. There are a couple of stages required before your vaccine is approved.

At first, before any tests can be performed on humans, the vaccine would be tested in a laboratory, using animals as a stand-in for humans. This is where the problems begin to arise. We have no idea where this virus came from, meaning we don’t know what animals we can test it on. This means that we must test it on animals that are known to carry SARS or other Coronaviruses to see the effect that the vaccine has on them. If no side effects develop, the

  1. Phase One testing: After the vaccine has been developed, it must be tested on the target audience to see whether they develop antibodies. The target audience in this case would be elderly people whose immune systems are weaker and are at more risk of contracting COVID-19. The group is given the lowest dose medical researchers believe is required to develop antibodies. This has been difficult, because of the contagious nature of the virus, and because it is still relatively unknown, only one company has been able to get past Phase One testing.
  2. Phase Two testing: After the test has been approved, more people must be enlisted. However, this time they must be from a broad spectrum of age, sex, race, and economic backgrounds. If the vaccine proves to be successful for all of these categories, and has no side effects, it advances to stage 3.
  3. Phase Three testing: This is the last stage in virus testing. Thousands of applicants are in a room are given the vaccines and a placebo. Their antibody production is observed against the placebo, and if there is a significant benefit in using the vaccine, the vaccine is ordered into production.

Now, why in this particular case is the Coronavirus vaccine so difficult to produce. There are a multitude of reasons for this. The first is that vaccines themselves take very long to produce. We know very little about this virus, we don’t even know where it came from! If we knew just that, it could help us in our testing efforts dramatically. The origin of the virus is still debated. Some say that it was a virus that got loose from a lab in Wuhan, while others stick to the theory of it originating in the wet market. If we were to look at SARS, which we knew came from a Civet Cat, we could observe other kinds of viruses found within the Civet Cat to analyze their behaviour, and we could gain a large testing sample. The origins hinder developing the vaccine and testing it in the pre-clinical stages. As for testing, this process can require months. Due to the very specific regulations set forth by the FDA, it can take up to a year to go through all the testing, as the diversity of the human race means that Stage 2 and 3 must be very rigorous. Even after we had developed the vaccine and tested it, it would take alot of money to manufacture. This is because Big Pharma is usually reluctant to manufacture vaccines, as once the pandemic is over, they end up broke, because all the money it took developing the vaccine ended up in waste now that the Pandemic is over. This means that the governments of countries such as the U.S. often have to foot the bill. But as we know, the U.S. is trying to pass stimulus bills of up to 2 trillion dollars, and with unemployment soaring, the tax money coming in has begun to dry up. Finally, there is alot unknown about this viruses mutations. New research out of New York City has seen kids developing certain syndromes, and young children having hard times breathing. We have not seen this virus enough to know what it pertains to, meaning that we must research it more before we can rush a vaccine. This long list of reasons is exactly why it may take up to 18 months to develop a Sars-CoV-2 vaccine, these things must take time, or have drastic side effects.

In conclusion, we cannot really speed up the rate of vaccine development. This virus is tricky, everything from it’s origins to mutations, to it’s constant mutations. We need to spend time making a vaccine that is effective and can help us rid COVD-19 from this world. We should allow the scientists to do their work properly, so stay home as much as possible and wash your hands constantly.In the mean time however, get some snacks, a thick blanket, and your favorite show on Netflix to keep you company!

(Further note, if you would like to learn more about the Novel Coronavirus, here are some videos from Vox)

Thanks for reading!

Hi! I'm Angad, a Grade 9 student from the University of Toronto Schools who loves learning anything and everything!