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It’s A Novel Coronavirus, But To Find A Vaccine Scientists Look To The Past

Coronavirus Vaccine Research
Jessica Hill
A researcher at Protein Sciences works in a lab in Meriden, Conn., last week. The biotech company is currently researching a vaccine for COVID-19.

Researchers in Connecticut and on Long Island are among the brainpower working overtime to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus. Those vaccines could be months – if not, years – away. 

But they say this is not unchartered territory. The lessons learned in past epidemics are now influencing how scientists are fighting the spread of COVID-19.

SARS is like a distant cousin of COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes. In fact, SARS is a type of coronavirus, and COVID-19 and SARS both cause severe, fast-acting respiratory problems. 

That’s why health professionals are optimistic that they know how to treat the symptoms of COVID-19. Unfortunately, it’s also why researchers say the devil is in the details. 

“Viruses can evolve,” said Fred Cohan, microbial ecologist at Wesleyan University. He says creating a vaccine before the virus has a chance to become more efficient in its transmission is key. 

“Ebola had a chance to go through thousands of cycles through humans. From infection to infection to infection, there was a lot of opportunity for it to get better at infecting humans.”

People with Ebola were quarantined and treated. A vaccine was approved and manufactured months later. And healthy people, for the most part, stayed healthy.  

Cohan said public health officials and health professionals have learned a lot from viral outbreaks in recent years. 

He said step one: the best medicine against the spread of the coronavirus is social distance. But it’s not a long-term solution and points to why vaccines are needed.

“I don't see that there's something that we could do to socially distance ourselves enough, to wash our hands a little better that would without that, prevent this from continuing on our species into the indefinite future,” Cohan said.

A vaccine would help a healthy person’s natural defenses prevent the virus from transmitting, infecting and evolving any further.   

Janet Hearing, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, said the body’s immune system kicks in and adapts to viral infections once a vaccine is introduced. 

“That induces an immune response that can prevent a virus that you encounter out in the community from starting an infection,” Hearing said.

And she says there are dozens of different approaches scientists will take to try to produce a vaccine that works. 

“Many of them replicates what is already been done for vaccines that we routinely get,” she said.

One of the vaccines in development would be administered as a shot and contains the killed virus.

“And then treat it with a chemical so that it's no longer able to cause an infection and then inject that material into, typically, into the muscle, like we do with the influenza vaccine that most people get every year,” Hearing said. 

Other researchers have in development vaccines that genetically weaken a living virus. 

“If it can't replicate well in the body, our immune systems then control it when it's given as a vaccine,” she added.

It would be given through a nasal spray, like the FluMist vaccine for influenza. 

Hearing said these are both proven methods to allow for the mass production of a vaccine to get the number of doses needed to protect against the coronavirus in the future – the infrastructure is already in place.

“There are already good protocols that could be rapidly adopted and tested for large-scale vaccine production,” she said.

In the meantime, health professionals and researchers ask the public to do their part with good hygiene and social distancing while they develop safeguards against future outbreaks.

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here. 

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.