Scientists Speed Up COVID-19 Candidate Vaccine Development : Short Wave Approximately 200 COVID-19 vaccines are being actively developed, a process that health officials are expediting to help end the pandemic. Today on the show, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca walks us through the latest in vaccine development — from how a coronavirus vaccine would work to the challenges of distributing it to the world.
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A COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Need To Know

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A COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Need To Know

A COVID-19 Vaccine: What You Need To Know

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here in for Maddie, who is off today. So Joe Palca, science correspondent, you are stuck with me.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: I can live with that.

KWONG: Joe, you have been reporting on the pandemic for months now and specifically one crucial part of this story - vaccines.

PALCA: Right. I think vaccines are pretty much the way out of this, most people agree. It's been, so far, the most successful tool in preventing infectious disease. But of course, we don't have a vaccine right now, and so that's why we're doing all these other things like shutting things down and social distancing and wearing masks and washing our hands, et cetera, until we do have a vaccine that's safe and effective and available.

KWONG: Right. And we're basically hiding from the virus in the meantime.

PALCA: Right.

KWONG: But I've heard that vaccines have traditionally taking years to develop. So what are we doing to speed up the process?

PALCA: Well, quite a lot, actually. And just to give you one example, a couple of weeks ago, I got a virtual tour of a vaccine facility in Baltimore.


SEAN KIRK: What you're looking at here is one step of a multiple-step process.

PALCA: It's run by a company called Emergent BioSolutions. And Sean Kirk oversees the manufacturing and technical operations. And what he's doing is he's pointing his cellphone camera through a glass window into another room with several large stainless steel pieces of equipment.


KIRK: You can see the bag sticking out the top. Do you see it?

PALCA: So what's going to go inside this bag is actually - believe it or not - insect cells that have been modified to make proteins from the coronavirus that's going to be used to make the vaccine.

KWONG: Whoa.

PALCA: The technicians are loading this bag into a 50-liter stainless steel vessel that's part of what's called a bioreactor.


KIRK: Around the outside of this is the vessel itself that provides the heating, the cooling and, with the inserted the agitator, the mixing.

PALCA: The cells are spitting out a protein that's going to become the coronavirus vaccine. All this is being done with the strict standards of the Food and Drug Administration. And the vaccine is from a biotech company called Novavax. And Emergent says they're ready to make hundreds of millions of doses of it on a short timescale.

KWONG: Hold up, Joe - 'cause I thought there weren't any approved vaccines yet. So what's happening here with this manufacturing?

PALCA: Yeah. Well, you're asking what's going to speed up the process, and this is part of the answer. They're not just waiting to see if the vaccine works. They're doing what's called at-risk manufacturing it. They're getting ready to make hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine. And when they finish testing it, it might not work.


PALCA: But the government says, we don't have any choice 'cause we can't wait until we find out if it works to start manufacturing it because that'll just add months and months to the process. So they're getting going right away.

KWONG: Sounds like kind of a gamble. But we don't really have much of a choice. Is that right?

PALCA: Well, that's what people are saying. I mean, it's a gamble that health officials say we have to make if we want to have a vaccine that's going to be around in time to put a stop to this pandemic.

KWONG: OK. Today on the show, what you need to know about a coronavirus vaccine, from how it works to the challenges of distributing it to, you know, the world. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: OK, Joe Palca, let's start with some vaccine basics. I read there are over 100 vaccines in development for this coronavirus. And all of these vaccines are trying to do the same thing - trigger an immune response from your body without actually getting you sick.

PALCA: Yes. I've been thinking about it as a little bit like showing a picture to someone and say, if this person comes to your door, don't let him in. And that's essentially what you're doing with a vaccine.

KWONG: Right. And I guess there are a couple different ways a coronavirus vaccine can maybe trigger that response. Tell me about a couple of them.

PALCA: Well, one thing you can do is you can actually kill a virus. What does that mean? Well, it's not really alive. But let's say you treat it with heat or formaldehyde - it's no longer working - and you inject that into somebody. Well, it has the shape of a virus and the look of a virus, but it doesn't do what a virus does. So the immune system can respond to that. That's kind of how the polio vaccine that Jonas Salk came up with. Or you can take the virus and modify it so that it's no longer able to make someone sick. That's basically what the Sabin polio vaccine did. It weakened the polio virus so that the immune system saw it, made all the right responses but didn't cause disease.

KWONG: Gotcha.

PALCA: And since those two, there have been a myriad of different ways. It's just the idea of getting the immune system to recognize parts of the virus so that it'll have an immune response without actually making somebody sick.

KWONG: All right. Let's talk, too, about why vaccine development takes so long because we mentioned earlier it's normally a very step-by-step process. And I'm guessing that's why it takes a while, right?

PALCA: Well, yeah. I mean, there are lots of steps in the process. First one is to make sure that the vaccine is safe. I mean, you're going to be giving it to a lot of people, so you want to make sure it doesn't cause any problems on its own.

KWONG: Pretty important.

PALCA: And then you want to make sure it has an immune reaction, an immune response, so you measure the cells that people make or the proteins that they make from their immune system after you've given them the vaccine. And then you want to make sure it prevents them from getting sick from the coronavirus.

KWONG: None of these sound like easy tasks, I got to say.

PALCA: Yeah. No, it's all time-consuming. It's all difficult. It all requires a lot of people and patience and coordination. And you can't really speed it up. I mean, if you want to see if something's going to work for six months, you kind of have to wait around for six months to see if it's going to work.

KWONG: Right. And so with this coronavirus, we're seeing manufacturers trying to compress the timeline. But this takes a lot of money and a lot of financial risk. So Dr. Anthony Fauci of the coronavirus task force thinks we can develop a vaccine by the end of this year because the government is helping these manufacturers financially through Operation Warp Speed. Here's Fauci speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin.


ANTHONY FAUCI: It's risking hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe a half a billion to a billion dollars. The government is investing in that, in taking that risk away and saying, proceed. And you'll save several months.

KWONG: So Joe, aside from this, what else can be done to move the process along?

PALCA: Well, I mean, one of the things you can do is just get a lot of people working on the problem at the same time. And then you can also do things that will make sure that the regulatory process is smooth so the Food and Drug Administration is coming along with you in every step so that they don't have to review everything after you've done it. They can view everything as you're doing it.

But this idea of having a lot of labs involved is something that's going to really be helpful. And I talked with Dr. Louis Falo over at the University of Pittsburgh medical school. His team is developing something. It's a patch with microneedles that contain tiny bits of the coronavirus. And the microneedles are so small that you don't even feel them. So you...

KWONG: Oh, wow.

PALCA: ...Slap on the patch and wait a few weeks.

KWONG: And boom - immunity - coronavirus patch, if it works.

PALCA: Yeah, if it works. But this is just one approach.

LOUIS FALO: And I think that they will basically feed off of each other. This is going to help us to do these trials both quicker and to find a vaccine that's most effective when we start to be able to compare these different approaches.

KWONG: So Joe, let's say sometime in the future we have a winning vaccine or a few vaccines that are fully approved. How on planet Earth are we going to distribute them? Like, who's - who is going to get it first?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) First MEV-1 vaccination are those people born on March 10.

KWONG: This is a scene from the movie "Contagion." I know. We promised we wouldn't play this movie again on the podcast. But this scene is kind of how a vaccine was deployed, at least in the film. So Joe, is there a massive lottery drawing in our future to decide who gets the coronavirus vaccine?

PALCA: I don't think that's going to be the actual way that it's going to be rolled out.


PALCA: Most of the people I've talked to suggest that it's going to go first to health care workers and people who are on the frontlines of combating the disease. But then you want to think about sort of the societal infrastructure. I mean, who makes things go? And I think a number of years ago, people wouldn't necessarily have thought of delivery truck drivers as people who are crucial to the infrastructure of the country. And yet, more and more people are now relying on deliveries to get stuff. And so they may be considered critical people who need to be vaccinated, or they're people who are at high risk for the disease.

But the fact is that at some point, we're going to have to figure out a way to get this to everybody.

KWONG: Right.

PALCA: Seth Berkley, the CEO of an organization called Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, put it really well.

SETH BERKLEY: We're not going to be safe as a world unless everywhere is safe. So even if, you know, we had parts of the world that would have low spread or no spread, if you had large reservoirs of the virus in other places, of course, you have a risk of reintroduction.

KWONG: I like that - we're not going to be safe as a world unless everywhere is safe. OK. Last question, Joe - will the coronavirus vaccine be one that changes every year because the coronavirus changes every year, if we know that? Or will it be more like the measles or the polio vaccine?

PALCA: We don't know.

KWONG: We don't know.

PALCA: Wish I could give you a better answer than that, but the answer right now is we don't know. So there's not enough experience with this virus yet to know for sure...

KWONG: Of course.

PALCA: ...What's going to happen. It's possible that there'll be a different version that they'll need to make vaccines against for every year. Or it's also possible - and this is probably more likely - that there'll need to be boosters from time to time, maybe not as infrequently as measles but maybe more frequently than some so that - it's not clear how long the immune response that you get from a vaccine will work. So the trouble is it's just - I mean, it's so new, the understanding of this virus, that people aren't saying anything for sure yet.

KWONG: Joe, do you think you'll be reporting on vaccines for this virus for the rest of your career?

PALCA: It's a big topic. I don't think it's going away.

KWONG: Well, we hope you stick around to cover it, Joe Palca, science correspondent at NPR. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

PALCA: You betcha.


KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Abby Wendle and Viet Le. Deborah George edited, and Brit Hanson checked the facts. I'm Emily Kwong, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR. See you tomorrow.


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