Coronavirus vaccine safety: what to know
The development of a COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccine is essential in the fight to bring the current pandemic to an end. With the speed at which development is progressing, there are some questions over how safe any vaccines will be once they are produced. In this article we’ll go over the main concerns related to the safety of the new coronavirus vaccine candidates.
How will the coronavirus vaccine work?
Vaccines work by harmlessly introducing elements of a disease to the body to teach it how to fight specific infections.
When creating a prospective vaccine, scientists first have to understand how the coronavirus attacks the body. The vaccine developers can then take genetic material from the coronavirus and use it to create a vaccine that appears to the body in the same way the virus would.
This is injected into the patient, stimulating an adaptive immune response where the body creates antibodies that can fight coronavirus. Antibodies are a type of blood protein used by the body to fight infection, so if the patient comes into contact with coronavirus, their body will already know how to fight it.
There are currently many different types of vaccine candidates being developed.
The University of Oxford coronavirus vaccine works by taking a lesser virus (similar to a common cold) and manipulating it so it is no longer harmful. The manipulated virus acquires the surface features which mimic coronavirus, appearing to the body in the same way and triggering the creation of coronavirus antibodies. The Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate created by CanSino Biologics is based upon a similar principle.
Other vaccines use synthetic DNA to teach the body how to create the proteins which can fight coronavirus and create immunity, such as the vaccine being developed by American biotechnology company Moderna. The vaccine being produced by the collaboration between American pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, and the German biotechnology company, BioNTech, also uses synthetic DNA technology.
Vaccines can be created in many different ways, but ultimately all vaccines allow your immune system to learn how to fight infection and gain immunity. It is far safer to gain immunity through vaccination than it is by catching a potentially life-threatening disease.
How can a vaccine be made in months when it usually takes years?
There are over 70 coronavirus vaccines being developed all over the world, and many of the frontrunners in the race to make the coronavirus vaccine have created vaccines using established platforms. This means that the vaccine developers have a specific method of creating vaccines which can be applied to similar viruses.
Some of the vaccine candidates (such as the one being developed by the University of Oxford) have already been tried and tested with previous coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS. Previous research and vaccine development with similar coronaviruses has made the process of creating a COVID-19 vaccine much faster.
If similar technology used with previous coronaviruses has been successful, it is also a good indication that it will be successful with COVID-19 too.
Another factor in the speed of the coronavirus vaccine development is the increase in funding and resources. Owing to the severity of the pandemic and its repercussions, a lot more funding that usual has been dedicated to vaccine development. As a result, progress has been made a lot faster than it would under other circumstances.
How can they make a vaccine for coronavirus when there aren’t yet vaccines for viruses like HIV?
Creating vaccines for different viruses can be very different. Although HIV affects many people all over the world, the complexity with which the virus affects the body makes it difficult to develop a vaccine that can guarantee immunity.
By contrast, the COVID-19 coronavirus attacks the body in a different way. After early progress was made in understanding the structure of the virus and sequencing its genetic information, efforts to create the vaccine could already begin.
There has also been an unprecedented cross collaboration between biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies, public organisations and government agencies around the world in the work to create a functioning coronavirus vaccine.
How will the coronavirus vaccine be tested to ensure it is safe?
All candidates for the coronavirus vaccine will pass through a rigorous testing process to ensure that they work properly and are safe.
Once a vaccine candidate is ready, it must pass through three phases of clinical trials. In the first phase, a small group of volunteers is given the vaccine to ensure the vaccine is safe and has no adverse side effects.
Once the vaccine is established to be safe, testing can move on to the second phase, in which a larger group is given the vaccine. This second group of volunteers should be of different ages and backgrounds to mimic how the vaccine might work for different people. The phase of testing will establish whether the vaccine is efficient in creating immunity against the coronavirus.
The third phase involves testing on an even larger group of volunteers to ensure the efficiency and safety of the vaccine on wider society.
Only then will the vaccine be approved for distribution to the general public.
Before the coronavirus vaccine is ready it must go through a number of stages in development. Take a look at our coronavirus vaccine tracker for the latest news and results on vaccines in each stage.