What About Vaccines and Cures?

By March 26, 2020 March 28th, 2020 Commentary

One reasonable explanation for actions to mitigate the spread of the coronvirus 19 strain is that it buys time to develop a vaccine or find existing or new drugs that may help control the illness it could cause.  I would exercise caution in regard to those possibilities.  Partly my caution comes from the experience with influence viruses.  We have vaccines and they provide a fair degree of protection from getting the flu, but you only have to look at the annual rates of illness, hospitalizations and deaths to realize that it is still a serious health problem.  Influenza viruses are relatively unstable, that is they have frequent sequence changes that make creating a universal vaccine difficult.  And this is why we have to get new flu vaccine immunizations every year.

From what I have read, scientists so far believe that coronaviruses in general, and this strain, as well, are actually fairly stable–they have low rates of mutations.   This would be good news, as it would imply that a vaccine might confer longer-lasting protection, which could potentially be given less frequently.  The factor that weighs against this is what I understand to be the relatively short lifetime of human antibodies.  Coronavirus antibodies appear to disappear in the course of a couple of years.  I am not sure why this would be so, and perhaps a vaccine would prompt development of antibodies which last longer.  In any event, realistically we want to ensure that a vaccine works and is safe and that requires fairly large and lengthy trials.  I am sure development and testing will be accelerated, but I think 9 months would be quite quick and at least a year more realistic.

There are several existing drugs that may be effective in combatting the nastier consequences of a coronavirus illness, but those too should ultimately be subjected to some testing to verify that they will work for large segments of the population. So far the evidence is largely anecdotal.  New drugs specific to coronavirus are being worked on, including some antibody approaches, but again, let’s be realistic, it will be a few months, at a minimum, before we know if these are ready for prime time.  So again, I would be cautious in assuming that a vaccine or a drug is going to solve this problem.  The more conservative approach would be to assume that this new coronavirus will be with us for an extended period, likely indefinitely, and that we will be battling it every year, just as we do with the flu.

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