Time Magazine International Edition

When will we get a vaccine?

THE CLEVEREST OF ENEMIES THRIVE ON SURPRISE attacks. Viruses—and coronaviruses in particular—know this well. Remaining hidden in animal hosts for decades, they mutate steadily, sometimes serendipitously morphing into more effective and efficient infectious agents. When a strain with just the right combination of genetic codes that spell trouble for people makes the leap from animal to human, the ambush begins.

Such was the case with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind COVID-19, and the attack was mostly silent and insidious at first. Many people infected with SARS-CoV-2 remained oblivious as they served as the virus’s new home and allowed it to establish a foothold in the global human population. These hosts were the perfect base camp for launching the attack that has upended social norms, economies, political systems and more all across the world.

The best hope for confronting this onslaught is a vaccine—if the furious research efforts under way yield effective shots, if manufacturers can distribute them to enough people and if enough of those people actually get immunized.

Vaccines rely on the idea of herd immunity, a type of biological fortress in which the vast majority of the population is protected against infection. One way to get there is via natural infection, which involves enough people getting infected and recovering without serious consequences. But many public-health experts say pushing to open businesses and schools, so healthy people who might not get seriously ill if infected can develop this immunity, is a dangerous strategy that leaves too much to chance; there is no way to predict how much time it will take, and along the way the virus will keep harming and killing people until enough people become immune.

Vaccines have been the scientific detour around natural immunity—offering the benefits of protection without the suffering and unpredictability—since Edward Jenner, in the 1790s, discovered that exposing people to small amounts of the smallpox virus could give them immunity to the disease. Today, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are developing or testing more than 100 COVID-19 vaccine candidates and governments are pumping billions of dollars into a massive global effort the likes of which we haven’t seen since the polio epidemic of the 1950s. Everything about this vaccine endeavor could be history-making, from the speed with which shots are developed, to the way they are tested and authorized, to how they are doled out to people around the world. Months after scientists first identified the new coronavirus, Chinese teams are already testing nearly 10 potential vaccines. Fueled by President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which will provide at least $10 billion in federal funding for research and testing of promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates, the U.S. is conducting three late-stage trials in healthy volunteers. Other countries—including Italy, Russia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and India—have all launched human tests of their own vaccines.

Operation Warp Speed promises to deliver an ambitious 300 million doses by January 2021; to do so, manufacturers including Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Sanofi and Johnson

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