Today, the first-ever U.S.-based injection of a human patient with an "investigational" vaccine went forward. The patient, shown in the tweet below, represents "phase 1" of the vaccine, which was produced by Moderna.
Though this is a promising step, public health officials still say it will take a year to 18 months to fully test and validate any vaccine.
The news comes as cases outside of China have surpassed those of the country where the infectious disease originated for the first time.
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UPDATE March 16, 3:17 PM EDT: First volunteer receives mRNA vaccine for the deadly coronavirus, via Moderna
The first-ever injection of an investigational vaccine for the deadly coronavirus happened in Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI), reports the institute's blog.
As of writing, no other U.S.-based trial had been launched in real human patients of any vaccine for this radical virus, which causes COVID-19. The KPWHRI trial initially recruited participants on March 3.
Here's the 1st of 4 volunteers who this morning received an investigational vaccine for COVID-19 as part of a @kpwashington phase 1 clinical trial. Learn more here: https://t.co/gSJtLyOG2K Thanks to @NIH for making it possible. Credit: Ted S. Warren / AP Photos https://t.co/WiFc7WXlSfpic.twitter.com/IqovYszmYB— KP WA Research (@KPWaResearch) March 16, 2020
"We are proud that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) selected us to conduct this innovative trial," said Lisa Jackson, MD, MPH, senior investigator at KPWHRI. "We're well prepared and focused on helping to address this evolving health situation."
Jackson is the lead researcher of the study, currently is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2 is an urgent public health priority," said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director, in an NIAID news release.
Called mRNA-1273 and produced by Moderna, the investigational vaccine is curated using a new process that works much faster than previous vaccine-producing methods. It doesn't carry any constituent parts of the actual coronavirus and can't cause an infection. Instead of the usual 'hair-of-the-dog' method, this vaccine uses a short segment of messenger RNA created in a lab.
While the trial is only in "phase 1," it's surely heartening to learn that there are now two potential cures undergoing tests for future scale-ups and global application.
An anonymous government source
The official who told AP News about the plans to start human trials today did so on condition of anonymity, stating that they could not reveal their names as the trials haven't yet been made public. The National Institutes of Health is funding the trial, which is being held at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.
According to the anonymous government official, trials will begin with 45 young, healthy volunteers. Each one will be given different doses of shots of the trial vaccine co-developed by NIH and Moderna Inc.
These early trial vaccines don't contain the virus itself, so there is no risk that the people involved will be infected. Instead, researchers are looking out for potential side effects before going onto the next stage of tests.
Global health efforts
Research groups worldwide are working on developing a vaccine for the coronavirus using different methods. Scientists are also trying to develop different types of vaccines — some are even trying to quickly develop a temporary vaccine that guards patients' health for a month or two before a long-term solution is developed.
However, even if tests do go well, “you’re talking about a year to a year and a half” before any vaccine is developed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained to AP News. It takes extensive trials to know whether a vaccine is safe and does no harm to patients.
— UN Development (@UNDP) March 15, 2020
Though President Donal Trump has been saying that work is “moving along very quickly” and he hopes to see a vaccine “relatively soon," the Trump administration has controversially made a takeover bid for "exclusive rights" to the work of a German pharmaceutical company working on the vaccine.
In China, scientists have been testing a combination of HIV drugs against the new coronavirus, as well as remdesivir, an experimental drug that was already in development to fight Ebola.
A race against time
Though the COVID-19 coronavirus causes mild illness for the majority of cases, it is estimated to spread at a rate almost three times faster than the seasonal flu. As we don't have any known cure for the disease, which causes severe illness and pneumonia in a minority of cases, there are real worries that the virus will cause health systems to collapse due to an influx of critical cases.
Even in the case that a vaccine is developed within the next year and a half, it will have been developed in record time. Once it has been developed, there is still the huge logistical challenge of getting everyone access to the vaccination. As The Guardian reports, countries would likely prioritize health workers first, and those most at risk.
The outbreak has infected more than 156,000 people and killed more than 5,800. According to the World Health Organization, those with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while more severe cases may take three to six weeks to recover.
Editor's Note: This article has been changed to reflect ongoing developments of Moderna's vaccine test. An updated section was added to report the first-ever application of the mRNA vaccine to a living, human patient in the United States. This is also reflected in the embedded tweet. The title and introduction of this article were also changed to reflect this update.