The World Health Organisation said this week it may be 18 months before a vaccine against the coronavirus is publicly available.Let’s explore why, even with global efforts, it might take this long.

The World Health Organisation said this week it may be 18 months before a vaccine against the coronavirus is publicly available.

Let’s explore why, even with global efforts, it might take this long.

China shared publicly the full RNA sequence of the virus – now known as SARS-CoV-2 rather than COVID-19, which refers to the disease itself – in the first half of January.

This kickstarted efforts to develop vaccines around the world, including at the University of Queensland. As well as institutions in the US and Europe.

By late January, the virus was successfully grown outside China for the first time, by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, a critically important step. For the first time, researchers in other countries had access to a live sample of the virus.

Using this sample, researchers at CSIRO’s high-containment facility (the Australian Centre for Disease preparedness (ACDP) formerly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory AAHL) in Geelong, could begin to understand the characteristics of the virus. Another crucial step in the global effort towards developing a vaccine.

Vaccines have historically taken two to five years to develop. But with a global effort, and learning from past efforts to develop coronavirus vaccines, researchers could potentially develop a vaccine in a much shorter time.

Here’s why we need to work together

No single institution has the capacity or facilities to develop a vaccine by itself. There are also more stages to the process than many people appreciate.

First, we must understand the virus’s characteristics and behaviour in the host (humans). To do this, we must first develop an animal model.

A virus cell against red blood cells

First, we must understand the characteristics and behaviour of the virus in its host.

Next, we must demonstrate that potential vaccines are safe and can trigger the right parts of the body’s immunity, without causing damage. Then we can begin pre-clinical animal testing of potential vaccines, using the animal model.

Vaccines that successfully pass pre-clinical testing can then be used by other institutions with the capacity to run human trials.

Where these will be conducted, and by whom, has yet to be decided. Generally, it is ideal to test such vaccines in the setting of the current outbreak.

Finally, if a vaccine is found to be safe and effective, it will need to pass the necessary regulatory approvals. And a cost-effective way of making the vaccine will also need to be in place before the final vaccine is ready for delivery.

Each of these steps in the vaccine development pipeline faces potential challenges.

Here are some of the challenges we face

The international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has engaged our team in those first two steps: determining the characteristics of the current virus, then pre-clinical testing of potential vaccines.

While Melbourne’s Doherty Institute and others have been instrumental in isolating the novel coronavirus, the next step for us is growing large amounts of it so our scientists have enough to work with. This involves culturing the virus in the lab (encouraging it to grow) under especially secure and sterile conditions.

The next challenge we face is developing and validating the right biological model for the virus. This will be an animal model that gives us clues to how the coronavirus might behave in humans.

Our previous work with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has given us a good foundation to build on.

SARS is another member of the coronavirus family that spread during 2002-03. Our scientists developed a biological model for SARS, using ferrets, in work to identify the original host of the virus: bats.

SARS and the new SARS-CoV-2 share about 80-90% of their genetic code. So our experience with SARS means we are optimistic our existing ferret model can be used as a starting point for work on the novel coronavirus.

We will also explore other biological models to provide more robust data and as a contingency.

A birds eye view of the ACDP.

The Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, formerly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, is on the case.

What good will a vaccine be if the virus mutates?

There’s also the strong possibility that SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate.

Being an animal virus, it has already likely mutated as it adapted – first to another animal, and then jumping from an animal to humans.

Initially, this was without transmission among people, but now it has taken the significant step of sustained human-to-human transmission.

As the virus continues to infect people, it is going through something of a stabilisation, which is part of the mutation process.

This mutation process may even vary in different parts of the world, for various reasons.

This includes population density, which influences the number of people infected and how many opportunities the virus has to mutate. Prior exposure to other coronaviruses may also influence the population’s susceptibility to infection. This may also result in variant strains emerging, much like seasonal influenza.

Therefore, it’s crucial we continue to work with one of the latest versions of the virus to give a vaccine the greatest chance of being effective.

All this work needs to be done under stringent quality and safety conditions. This ensures it meets global legislative requirements, and ensures staff and the wider community are safe.

Other challenges ahead

Another challenge is manufacturing proteins from the virus needed to develop potential vaccines. These proteins are specially designed to elicit an immune response when administered, allowing a person’s immune system to protect against future infection.

Fortunately, recent advances in understanding viral proteins, their structure and functions, has allowed this work to progress around the world at considerable speed.

Developing a vaccine is a huge task and not something that can happen overnight. But if things go to plan, it will be much faster than we’ve seen before.

So many lessons were learned during the SARS outbreak. And the knowledge the global scientific community gained from trying to develop a vaccine against SARS has given us a head-start on developing one for this virus.

Rob Grenfell, Director of Health and Biosecurity, CSIRO and Trevor Drew, Director of the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) formerly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


  1. Why animal models? They don’t get affected why torture them .. halt the theft of biosphere and rising populations to feed.. look at the causes..

  2. Thanks for the clear info on the process. Good luck we’re cheering you all on every minute!!!

  3. Thankyou CSIRO!!!!

    for providing such comprehensive and easily understood information about this complex area in this site,
    It’s meat on the bone to those of us who want to further our understanding, beyond what’s readily available in the media. And I am in awe of what I don’t know. Truly. But now I have a better context in which to form views.
    So thanks again.

    Peter Powe.

    There are literally hundreds of different efforts going into dealing with the challenge of COVID-19 and SARS-Cov2. It’s all important. All of it.

    But a vaccine is tremendously important! We don’t want entire populations waiting to be infected to get us to much vaunted and misunderstood ‘herd immunity’ concept. That’s a harmful and fanciful idea particularly with a highly infectious, but approximately 1% lethal virus it’s got the capacity to overwhelm our hospitals. With misery for all concerned. This is the experience with Italy and England and the US backed off this idea.

    Simply put: You get herd immunity with vaccines!

    Further, it has not been emphasised, (no doubt to not cause undue panic, but it remains possible), that the virus may mutate into a more dangerous form. “May” is the operative term.

    This happened with the so called ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918. Although it was a flu virus, and this is coronavirus the principle remains the same. This virus is stabilising for now. The mutations aren’t apparently significantly impacting the effect of the virus so far in terms of patient recovery/mortality rates, but they still must be tracked and understood. We need to determine with certainty what we are dealing with and head it off at the pass. It’s urgent.

    Further, a vaccine is developed to keep up with mutations, it’s a dynamic process. We don’t get the same vaccine each year. A complex selection process takes place including making judgements anticipating what each virus is going to do, and which viruses will dominate.

    I can’t think of anything more important than developing a vaccine ASAP.

    The other is of course, seeking therapies to halt the mortality rate.

    An interesting area is non-autologous stem cell therapy which has the ability to stop the surge in inefficient immune function in Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) which is the fatal element. Clinical trials have already proven efficacy and safety with ARDS, and are awaited for COVID-19 application. This is just one area I happen to be interested in because it’s an emerging field and it’s is an Australian company (Mesoblast) that I’m following, but there are hundreds of other initiatives. It’s a war effort.

    It’s great to come up with public health policy ideas, but there’s a reason why we have experts in the field…

    So a few thoughts that are the sort of things that public health officals might consider:
    Is it just about providing a convenient place for patients to stay and equipment?
    Who is going to run these decentralised wards? Are specialists going to hot foot it around the city?
    How are you going to co-ordinate them, for instance to upgrade a patient into an ICU? What % of ICUs will you have?
    Upgrading or relocating issues?
    Cost vs benefits? Alternatives? hmm. Plenty to ponder.

  4. Rather than a vaccine, I think we should be concentrating on dealing with the huge influx depending on the existing medical facilities which has proven in the past inadequate with mass patients in the case of a pandemic. Rather, we should think about equipping one floor of all high-rise buildings in every city with an entire floor dedicated as a medical ward dealing with the effects of infectious disease en-mass. Regards Peter Powe.

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