In Vaccine Quest, Unprecedented Rush Puts Speed at Odds With Safety

By: - March 26, 2020

Scientists working to find a vaccine for the coronavirus are up against a projected timetable of 12 to 18 months. With that in mind, they’re struggling to find a way to speed up their methods without sacrificing scientific rigor, NBC News reports.

H. Holden Thorp, chemist and editor-in-chief of the journal Science, wrote in an essay on Monday that the scientific method requires time to both research the problem and to develop and test a solution.

“Now, scientists are trying to do both at the same time,” he wrote. “This is not just fixing a plane while it’s flying — it’s fixing a plane that’s flying while its blueprints are still being drawn.”

Walter Orenstein, Emory University School of Medicine professor and former director of the United States’ National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added that the 12-to-18-month timeline is already incredibly quick for vaccine development.

“It often takes 10 years for a new vaccine to make it through all the steps and all the tests necessary,” he said. “The public health urgency of this is definitely moving things faster than would generally be done.”

Orenstein added, “Ideally you want a vaccine that is more than 90% effective. But we would have to look at: Even with a less-than-ideal effectiveness, are there greater benefits if we can reduce the pressure on the health system? So it may be that under certain circumstances, a 50% effective vaccine is better than nothing.”

He said that in his 26 years with the CDC, he’s never experienced a situation comparable to this one.

“Nothing comes to mind of this kind of setting,” Orenstein said, “where we’re talking about a massive pandemic occurring and the longer we wait, the more we have potential for really adverse outcomes.”


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