As more and more countries are on lockdown due to COVID-19, and an increasing number of people are living in isolation, the question on everyone’s mind is: “When will this be over?” We look at what experts have to say.
Living in self-isolation has profound socio-political implications, in addition to the effects that it has on a person’s mental health and well-being.
Although more and more studies are showing that quarantine and isolation methods are indeed effective and that we should all continue to keep our physical distance, it is hard not to grow impatient and wonder how long this is likely to last.
The role of vaccines in a pandemic
The importance of vaccines in ending the pandemic is undeniable. But when will such vaccines become available? And should we wait?
Some experts have warned against relying on vaccines as a strategy for ending the current crisis.
Most vaccines are still likely to be 12–18 months away from being available to the entire population, and this period is long enough to cause lasting social and economic damage if the lockdown persists.
Speaking to the BBC about whether governments should rely on the advent of vaccines to end the pandemic, Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, says, “Waiting for a vaccine should not be honored with the name ‘strategy;’ that is not a strategy.”
However, some researchers are optimistic that a vaccine will be available much sooner than the often quoted 12–18 months mark.
Vaccines: Between optimism and caution
For instance, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at Oxford University in the U.K., and her team have been working on a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, which she believes will be available for the general population by the fall.
She explains that normally, it may take years of trials before a vaccine reaches the population, but during the pandemic, scientists can fast-track this process by doing as many of the necessary steps as possible in parallel.
“First, there is the need to manufacture the vaccine for clinical studies under tightly controlled conditions, certified and qualified — we need ethical approval and regulatory approval. Then, the clinical trial can start with 500 people in phase I.”
The vaccine could get approval “under emergency use legislation,” meaning that “in an emergency situation, if the regulators agree, it’s possible to use a vaccine earlier than in normal circumstances,” explains Prof. Gilbert.
Still, experts have cautioned that such estimates are overly optimistic. Their comments shed light on the difficulties of making vaccines available in general, not just Prof. Gilbert’s.
For instance, Prof. David Salisbury, associate fellow of the Centre on Global Health Security at the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House in London, U.K., warns, “[I]t is not just the availability of the first dose that we need to focus on.”
“We need to know by when there will be sufficient doses to protect all of the at-risk population, probably with two doses; and that means industrial scale manufacturing that governments do not have. It is also worth remembering that, too often, the bottlenecks for vaccine production are at the last stages — batch testing, freeze drying, filling and finishing: again, capacities that governments do not have.”
Prof. Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, U.K., stresses the importance of “good fortune” in vaccine research. Even if scientists produce a vaccine “sooner rather than later,” he says, “[t]his doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be enough doses for everyone to be vaccinated immediately, but with luck and commitment, this may be possible earlier than the often quoted 18-month-plus timetable.”
Martin Bachmann is another researcher who is optimistic that his lab will help make a vaccine available in 6–8 months.
A professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford in the U.K. and Head of the Department of Immunology at the University of Bern in Switzerland, Bachmann also spoke to MNT about where a vaccine fits into the puzzle that controlling the pandemic has become.