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Reality check: How long could it take to develop coronavirus vaccine?

World-renown vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez warns against optimistic coronavirus vaccine timelines.

HOUSTON — More than a dozen companies are racing to try and develop a new COVID-19 vaccine and each one is pledging to get it done in record time.

"We're going to be finding more (of the) virus," vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez said. "This is going to be an interesting week because the number of cases will go up."

Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He said as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to pop across the country, the pressure for a new coronavirus vaccine will build and so will boastful promises that it will be ready in a year to a year and a half.

"That's an optimistic timeline," Hotez said. "We're looking easily at a year, two or even three years."

Hotez knows what he's talking about. He and his team at the Center for Vaccine Development developed a vaccine in 2016 to protect against a strain of coronavirus, but it stalled before trials due to lack of funding.

"There are things you can do to streamline the vaccine testing process in people," Hotez said. "There are things you can do, but not for this vaccine. For this vaccine, you want to keep conservative timelines and be careful."

Rushing through the process could cause problems, potentially make individuals worse and threaten vaccine development in the U.S.

Vaccines go through three phases before they're deployed to the public.

  • Phase 1 is a test for safety. Anywhere from 20 to 100 individuals are injected and monitored for adverse reactions.
  • Phase 2 involves expanded trial testing on even more people. Their immune responses are monitored and measured.
  • Phase 3 is done in an area with high amounts of community transmission to show the vaccine is effective and highly protective.

"It's very hard to compress those timelines," Hotez said. "So, unfortunately, I doubt we'll have a vaccine in time for this epidemic. But hopefully, if the virus returns we can have it stockpiled and ready to go the next time around."

Hotez said vaccines are important, but the immediate concern should be testing. As testing ramps up, he expects to see community spread in more areas. He said that could be a game-changer that will force public health officials to take more aggressive action.

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