Chances of a COVID-19 Vaccine

“The objective is to calculate risk profiles for vaccines targeting human infectious diseases. A database was actively compiled to include all vaccine projects in development from 1998 to 2009 in the pre-clinical development phase, clinical trials phase I, II and III up to Market Registration. The average vaccine, taken from the preclinical phase, requires a development timeline of 10.71 years and has a market entry probability of 6%.”

-Pronker ES, Weenen TC, Commandeur H, Claassen EHJHM, Osterhaus ADME (2013) Risk in Vaccine Research and Development Quantified. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57755. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057755

A pandemic changes the risk profile in the sense that figuring out whether a vaccine is profitable is no longer the key consideration. However, it is worth noting that the current record for vaccine development is for Ebola, which took five years. And what about the original SARS? We still don’t have a vaccine for it, or for any coronavirus.

But, what about the recent news about Moderna’s vaccine? It’s based on mRNA. Let’s see what the CEO of one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world had to say on the topic, over a month ago:

“[GSK CEO Emma Walmsley] noted that mRNA vaccine candidates, such as the vaccine Moderna Inc. (NASDAQ:MRNA) is developing, have gotten into clinical trials more rapidly than those based on more conventional approaches, but there is some uncertainty about mRNA technologies.

“We are seeing several mRNA candidates coming forward,” Walmsley noted. “They may get earlier visibility of results. These are new technologies that haven’t been manufactured at scale.”

“Messenger RNA is a promising technology; it’s very versatile and it can produce candidates relatively quickly,” Loew said. “It has, however, never been tested in large Phase III trials and there is also no registered vaccine available today using that technology. It remains to be seen what this technology can really deliver.”

-Steve Usdin, “As COVID-19 vaccines progress, science and policy questions become more urgent.” BioCentury. April 15, 2020.

There are many coronavirus vaccine prospects, with frontrunners and others. Many different approaches are being tried to develop a vaccine. But, the target of getting one that works, is safe, can be manufactured and distributed at scale, and is available before the pandemic has run its course is not something that is likely to happen. Even if it were, it won’t be this year. Odds aren’t good for next year either.

Let’s hope a vaccine can be developed in time. But, let’s also be clear-eyed about the chances of that happening. They aren’t good.

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