The race for a COVID-19 vaccine

Though COVID-19 hasn't even been around for a year, nearly 740,000 people have died from it worldwide. The intense global search for a vaccine or a pill has many asking: when?

Worldwide, there are now some 165 COVID-19 vaccines in development. Only 40, are in some stage of human trials. Only two have been approved for early, very limited use. None have been approved for general use.

"This is remarkable speed that we've been developing vaccines with. That's the remarkable piece of it; very fast, but still, very careful," said Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley communicable disease expert. But, too fast increases two dangers.

"Both having a vaccine that may not work and puts us in danger of putting something in people s' bodies that may harm them," said Dr. Swartzberg.

There are three phases developing vaccines. In Phase I, a trial vaccine is administered to small groups of people. Phase II, the number of people is increased and targeted to people who have similar age, health and other criteria. Phase III, thousands of people, of all kinds, get the vaccine to verify that it is safe and effective. Why is Phase III so critical?

"We've had a lot of vaccines and drugs that have died in Phase III," said Swartzberg.

In the U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed, three possible vaccine candidates have been funded for Phase III trials. They include a vaccine from Moderna, Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

Dr. Swarztberg says all three are seriously promising. "But, there's a long distance between being seriously promised and actually having a vaccine that we know is safe and efficacious," said the doctor.

To gain approval, researchers must provide proof from strict controlled trials and be at least 50% effective against COVID-19.

Also, to speed up other proposed COVID-19 therapeutic drugs, medicines as well as vaccines, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has established partnerships with at least 18 biopharmaceutical companies.

"Therapeutics, actually, I've always been thinking, have a better chance at willing the first race than the vaccine," said Swartzberg.

The mumps vaccine, the fastest ever, took four years, measles took 10 and hepatitis B took 16 years. Cervical cancer took 27 years, chickenpox was 43, whooping cough took 42 years, polio: 57, meningitis took 82 years and typhoid 105 years.

So, Dr. Schwartzberg takes a very dim view of Russia's claim to have a safe, effective vaccine with no reviewable proof and no Phase III completed. "It's irresponsible and it's using whoever is gonna receive this vaccine, using those people as Guinea pigs," said Swartzberg.

In more than 100 years, no vaccine has ever been developed for malaria or tuberculosis. There are no vaccines for AIDS, ebola, Zika and Dengue Fever.