Quest for the Cure

World experiences unprecedented speeds in the development of drugs to combat COVID-19.


The performance of a new coronavirus vaccine is tested at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, but the finished product remains in production. In the meantime, doctors on the front lines of the coronavirus fight are looking to drugs that are already approved for treating other diseases. (Monica Herndon/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Wesley Henshaw, Editor-in-Chief

With over 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Missouri alone, nearly 2.7 million confirmed cases worldwide and the virus showing no sign of slowing down, a question is on everyone’s minds: Where is the cure? As it turns out, it might be closer than we expect, but still not as close as we’d like.

First, it is important to understand that there is no “cure,” and we’re not even looking for one. There are two types of action we can take against COVID-19, medically speaking, treatment and prevention through vaccination.

Treatment means treating the symptoms. For COVID-19, this would range from the milder symptoms to the more severe and frightening respiratory symptoms that most already know about.

While treatment of symptoms is certainly helpful, the immediate demand most have is for a vaccine, something that can prevent the infection and spread of the virus in the first place.

As of now there are roughly 160 vaccine candidates out there and rising, according to Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. Nature says that 73 of these candidates are both confirmed and in exploratory or pre-clinical phases. In fact, the first COVID-19 vaccine entered human clinical trials on March 16, a mere 10 weeks after the first genetic sequences of Sars-CoV-2 (what causes the coronavirus disease) were released.

That’s not all. Optimistic estimates have suggested a vaccine could be released to the public as early as June, while safer estimates from NIAID Director Anthony Fauci and other government officials have put the release at 12-18 months from now (at the least).

If you’re looking for good news in these dire times, this is it. Either estimate is an incredibly fast development. In fact, this whole process has seen unprecedented development speeds. For context, prior vaccines have had timelines of 10-20 years.

So why is this different? Well, there is certainly quite a bit of urgency.

At the moment, several different companies are attacking the problem on several diverse fronts. Some of the leading organizations are Moderna, CanSino Biologicals, Inovio, Shenzhen Geno-Immune Medical Institute and the University of Queensland Australia, just to name a few.

Currently, the organization known as Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has been working to coordinate the multiple research efforts and ensure that there is proper funding to ensure progress can be attained.

But even with all this progress, many might feel impatience as they grow more and more nervous about the surrounding circumstances. So why does it take so long?

It’s important to understand that drug development necessitates 3-4 phases (depending on how you define them).

Phase one is simply to test safety. The drug or vaccine is administered to a group of people who do not have the disease and those who have a disease other than the target disease. Here, the researchers are looking for side effects, anything that might make the drug more harm than good.

Phases two and three are focused on efficacy. In phase two, the drug is given to several hundred of those with the disease in order to see how effective it is and if there are any more side effects. Phase three is where the drug is given to a few thousand people with the disease and a placebo (a drug with no effect) is given to an identical group to truly test the efficacy of the drug.

Phase four is simply the drug’s release to the public, so it arguably isn’t even a phase of the research, though monitoring of its effects still takes place.

The difference in release predictions from various sources depends on what phase people are referring to. One might have a vaccine at phase one by June, but it won’t be mass-produced for the general population until phase four, which might be a year from now.

Now, some organizations are planning to merge or overlap these phases to speed up the process, moving into phase two while finishing up phase one, for instance. This would show a markedly increased development speed.

However, these procedures don’t account for the unprecedented R&D speeds we’re seeing with COVID-19 drugs on their own. One aspect of this that has been enormously beneficial is our wealth of prior resources and research in related diseases. Scientists have been able to utilize what they know about other identified coronaviruses to help the development of the drugs for this coronavirus. Additionally, other seemingly unrelated drugs have shown some efficacy. Currently, a tuberculosis vaccine and a polio vaccine are both being studied for their potential to help treat the coronavirus at hand.

Regardless of the development speeds, there will still be delays after the drug’s development in regards to the political and economic world as officials try to license and roll out the chosen drug. The chosen vaccine, though, would still be rolling out as much as a tenth of the time it normally takes.

Even if these vaccines and treatments come out a year after this pandemic subsides, it will not be in vain. The word is that this virus might become seasonal like the flu, but even if it didn’t, the new vaccine and/or treatment would add to our store of knowledge and help with future outbreaks of other diseases.

Now, one thing to take away from this is that, as of now, there is no proven vaccine or “cure” for the coronavirus, COVID-19. Do not trust anything that purports to be a “cure” for COVID-19 that has not been explicitly approved and touted by the proper officials. Both politicians and the media can and have been wrong on this topic, such as with the hydroxychloroquine situation with President Donald Trump and others, a drug that has not yet been found to be at all effective in treating the coronavirus.

Right now your best bet is to follow news from Fauci, members of WHO, and other professionals in this field. Current news about Fauci, including his advice to the American people, is often posted to his NIAID page here.