An effective COVID vaccine will come faster if science goes slowly

man with computer

While there is an urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine, it is important to remember that “slow is fast” when developing it.

A vaccine is the hope.

COVID-19 has upended everything we do, and return to a normal way of life is dependent on finding a vaccine.

Despite all of the information regarding a possible vaccine, the scientific community is mindful of exactly what is involved in the process of vaccine development. It is a deliberate process, and for good reason.

Many cases throughout history show how “fast tracking” a vaccine through initial trials without close monitoring could be catastrophic. I recently wrote an editorial for Science Advances about this very thing.

Clinical trials are critical for vaccine development

The three-phase process of clinical trials is necessary to help ensure a vaccine does what it’s supposed to do without significant adverse effects. I am confident a vaccine will be developed, but it will take time. In fact, most estimates conclude vaccine development will take 12-18 months. It may seem like a long time, but in scientific terms, that is extremely fast. Outlining how a vaccine works and possible adverse effects take time.

Understanding our immune response can also help us better understand candidate vaccines.

There are two types of immune responses: adaptive and innate.

An innate response is considered the first line of defense and isn’t specific to a particular infection. This response includes inflammation, sweating, watering eyes and other internal responses. There is at least one clinical trial initiated for health care workers exposed to SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that relies on “training” the innate immune response to quickly attack an infection.

Adaptive immunity uses vaccines to recruit lymphocytes to produce antibodies to neutralize the virus. The antibodies attach to the virus or other pathogen and mark it for T cells to attack and kill.

There are drawbacks to this process that can make the situation worse. Antibody-dependent enhancement is one such phenomenon. It occurs when the antibodies bind to both the virus and the antibody receptors on the cells. This helps the virus infect more cells more easily.

I relay these examples to explain that while there is an urgent need for a vaccine, we need to ensure it is safe. I ended my essay with an experimental research maxim of my colleague, Charles Sherr, PhD, who told me once, “Fast is slow, and slow is fast.”

As we scramble for answers to the COVID-19 mystery, we should keep this in mind amid the race to develop a safe and effective vaccine.

About the Author

Douglas R. Green

Douglas Green, PhD, is the chair of the Immunology Department, co-leader of the Cancer Biology Program and Peter C. Doherty Endowed Chair of Immunology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and has recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences. View full bio.