Step 1: Identify And Sequence The Virus
When evidence of a new virus is detected, scientists work to isolate and identify the specific virus in question. Once isolated, scientists can rapidly sequence the unique genetic code of the new virus, which provides information needed to help design diagnostic tests and potential vaccines and treatments.
On January 10, 2020, Chinese health officials released the full genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus that can cause COVID-19, just a few weeks after the first case was discovered. The next day, researchers around the world started work on a vaccine.
By comparison, it took several months after the discovery of SARS in 2002 to sequence the full SARS-CoV-1 genetic code with the tools available at that time. The much faster timeline in the case of COVID-19 illustrates recent improvements technologies that have dramatically shortened the time it takes to decode viruses and create a potential vaccine.
Step 2: Determine The Target
Vaccines work by imitating an infection to teach the immune system how to recognize, remember and target microbial invaders, like viruses and bacteria, without actually causing an infection. The process to determine how to best deliver a vaccine is complex as different approaches may work better for different pathogens.
Historically, some vaccines, such as the measles vaccine, have used live but weakened versions of a pathogen, while others have used viral material that has been chemically inactivated or killed, which is the method used by the polio vaccine.
Newer vaccines, such as the vaccine for hepatitis B, contain only a small part of a pathogen—usually a specific protein that the body can learn to recognize, known as an “antigen.” Given the pressing need for a safe and effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus, along with the volume of information that remains unknown about the disease, a wide range of approaches to vaccine development are being tested by biopharmaceutical researchers throughout the world to greatly improve the odds that one or more of these approaches will be successful.