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Where Vaccines To Prevent COVID-19 Stand


Right now there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Most experts agree we're going to need one if we want to end the threat to global health, and dozens of groups are now racing to create such a vaccine. Well, joining us now to talk about those efforts is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with the basics of why a vaccine is so important. It's not just about presenting - preventing the disease in one individual, right?

PALCA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, we need to get to the point where there's enough people immune to the virus so that it can't spread or at least the likelihood of spread goes way down. Now, that broad immunity can come in two ways - one is a lot of people get sick and some people die and then there's a lot of people immune that way, or you make a vaccine. And a vaccine essentially tricks the body into thinking it's been infected and recovered, when it really hasn't been infected, but it has recovered, as it were. But that way, the immune system is ready if the real virus comes along, and it can fight it off.

KELLY: OK. Well, let's cut to the chase. Where are we? Where does the effort stand to come up with a vaccine?

PALCA: Well, there are a lot of groups trying to find a way to generate that protective immune response. For example, there was a paper published today in the journal EBioMedicine from a group from the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, and it uses tiny bits of the virus - not the whole virus - to generate the immune response. But what's cool about this approach is it uses a patch with microneedles made of these viral bits, and those needles are so small that you don't even feel them. So you slap on the patch, wait a few weeks, and you've got immunity - if it works.

KELLY: (Laughter) That's the giant if, right?


KELLY: If it works. I mean, how encouraged should we feel?

PALCA: Yeah, you caught that, Mary Louise. That's good. Yes...


PALCA: ...There's certainly a lot of approaches that aren't going to work when they get tested in clinical trials. But Louis Falo, who is one of the people behind the microneedle-based vaccine, says there's a reason to be optimistic because there are a lot of groups trying a lot of different approaches.

LOUIS FALO: And I think that they will basically feed off of each other. This is going to help us to do these trials both quicker and to find a vaccine that's most effective when we start to be able to compare these different approaches.

KELLY: Joe, let me pick up on one word from that - quicker. What kind of time frame are we talking about here? Because we keep hearing that it's going to be a year; it's going to be 18 months to get a new vaccine all the way to market.

PALCA: Yeah, that's absolutely true. It usually does take that long and even sometimes longer, unfortunately. But I spoke with Kathleen Neuzil. She's a vaccine developer at the University of Maryland. And she says developing a COVID-19 vaccine could take a lot less time than the usual vaccine.

KATHLEEN NEUZIL: I'm optimistic. I have to say I'm optimistic because I think we've learned a lot from other emerging diseases, and we are capitalizing on those experiences.

PALCA: And she says that in addition to some of the smaller efforts that are going on by players like the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and some small biotech companies that have some really clever ideas, there are some really big players in the hunt for a vaccine. For example, Johnson & Johnson has a candidate vaccine that they're starting to test, and they're getting ready to make a billion doses of the vaccine. So they're betting that they will have something, and they're scaling up even before they know if it works. So that's pretty encouraging.

KELLY: Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Joe Palca on the push to come up with a vaccine to fight COVID-19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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