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How Close Are We to Getting a Vaccine for COVID-19?

In Short

While there has been progress in developing a vaccine for COVID-19, we are still months if not a year away from seeing widespread distribution. Rushing the development may cause more problems than a vaccine could solve, and experts are warning that without one we won’t see a decrease in infections.

It can take years before a vaccine is available for immunizing individuals against a virus, but during a global pandemic, governments are looking for ways to fast track development. Currently, there are 177 vaccine candidates at various stages of development worldwide, with the first human trials having begun in March.

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Russia is the first country to grant regulatory approval to a vaccine candidate.

The country did so with less than two months of human testing and incomplete Phase 1 trials registered. Though the announcement initially received significant criticism, both American and British officials have stated that they too are willing to fast track approvals.

Public health experts are warning that this rush for approvals may lead to the distribution of an unsafe vaccine that results in adverse side effects.

On Tuesday, the United States announced that they would not participate in the global effort to speed up the development of a vaccine, which is co-led by the World Health Organisation (WHO). So far 172 countries have committed to engaging with the COVID-19 vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX). The goal of the initiative is to streamline development, ensure safety, and secure sufficient vaccine doses for the most vulnerable. 

Canada is making deals to guarantee supply

As of this week, the federal government has confirmed agreements with four American pharmaceutical companies guaranteeing sufficient supply of their respective vaccines to immunize all Canadians. As more vaccines move towards human trials, Canada is hoping to be able to receive supply from whoever is successful. 

Another top concern for public health officials is ensuring that Canadians are willing to be vaccinated. Protecting the public from infection on a grand scale will require herd immunity, meaning that a significant number of the population is immune to the virus. Herd immunity works since those who are immunized are unable to infect the small portion of the population that is not.

Data recently published by the Angus Reid Institute is promising, indicating that a majority of Canadians are willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Experts have warned that natural immunity may not be enough to prevent spread as the risk of re-infection is still high. According to WHO, with a virus as highly transmissible as COVID-19, herd immunity would require at least 60-70% of the population to be immune to the virus. Without a vaccine, achieving this would take a long time and result in many preventable deaths.

The Bottom Line

After six months of lockdowns, travel restrictions, and public health warnings, an end to the threat of COVID-19 infection is still far off. Though growing impatience globally may shorten this timeline, it may also lead to ineffective solutions and unequal distribution of vaccines.

So when will this all come to an end? A vaccine successfully leading to herd immunity would lead to a medical end to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there can also be a social ending to the pandemic if fear of infection dissipates and people return to life as before. 

More often than not, a pandemic ends socially before the disease itself is completely eradicated. That means that even without a vaccine, we may see a return to a world without fear of COVID-19. The risk of infection may still be high for the most vulnerable, but a social ending to the pandemic would mean adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.