Scientists including a prominent University of Maryland virologist plan to test an old polio vaccine that they believe could provide temporary protection from COVID-19 as labs around the world work on specific coronavirus vaccines.
The effort to find a coronavirus vaccine has moved at an unprecedented pace. But no vaccine is expected until some time next year at the earliest, leaving an increasingly impatient public to continue distancing and mask wearing to prevent infections as states begin to lift pandemic-related restrictions.
“This polio vaccine is available and used all over the world now,” said Dr. Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Maryland’s School of Medicine. He works with the Global Virus Network, a coalition of virologists that is spear-heading the effort to study the vaccine.
“We can give it again and again and again if need be to protect against the coronavirus and other viruses,” he said.
Gallo and others at the network wrote this week about the polio vaccine in the journal Science. They said the idea is that a vaccine for one virus can be used against other viruses because they produce a general immune response in people’s bodies.
The group said they could use any vaccine derived from live but weakened virus. These vaccines could produce a stronger response than those based on an inactivated, or dead, virus.
The live polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s by Albert Sabin and replaced an inactivate vaccine created by Jonas Salk to prevent polio, a devastating disease that can lead to paralysis. The disease was widely feared and led to quarantines before it was eliminated from the United States in 1979 after a successful vaccination campaign.
That oral live vaccine still is widely used in other countries but is no longer licensed in the United States. The nation reverted to an inactivated vaccine in 2000 that was considered a bit safer because it did not produce the rare polio-like reaction in immune-compromised children. It’s use here would require new approvals.
The Global Virus Network team chose the oral polio vaccine because it’s cheap — 10 cents to 15 cents a dose — and easy to administer through a few drops in the mouth, said Konstantin Chumakov, associate director for research for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review and director of the Global Virus Network Center.
Chumakov’s mother, also a researcher, helped show the polio vaccine could have general protective qualities decades ago. Children who got it generally weathered infectious disease outbreaks better than those who didn’t.
The network revived the idea earlier this year as they saw the difficult road ahead for developing a specific vaccine for coronavirus.
Chumakov, who said he was giving his personal opinion as a scientist and not speaking for the FDA, said he sees little safety risk from using the vaccine in trials. Immune-compromised people wouldn’t be included.
He said, however, the group doesn’t know how much protection from the coronavirus the vaccine would afford or for how long. That’s what they need to find out. They also can’t say how much sooner it would be ready for the public than a vaccine specific to the coronavirus, which may only be needed by a person once.
“This isn’t a competition with a specific vaccine,” said Chumakov, adding that such a vaccine was needed.
The polio vaccine could, however, be deployed early in an future viral epidemic, not just this one.
“We think this oral polio vaccine could work against any emerging disease," he said. "This disease won’t be the last one. We are developing this for the COVID-19, but this could be a tool, a universal tool, that is there to deploy instantly with any epidemic.”
The vaccine’s deployment still has hurdles. The group is awaiting final federal approval for trials, which are planned in Maryland and New York among other sites using approximately 11,000 volunteers. They received donations of the vaccine but also are awaiting federal funding to conduct the studies.
The scientists expect both the money and approvals soon enough to have trials completed in a few months and the vaccine ready as early as year’s end.
Studies for specific vaccines are underway in multiple labs around the globe, but federal authorities believe it will be next year before one or more are ready for distribution.
The University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, for example, just injected the first few people in May as part of trials for four vaccine candidates developed by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and the German biotech company BioNTech. Trials check for safety and efficacy.
There are two other vaccines in development at the university, including one being done in concert with a consortium established by the National Institutes of Health.
Also in Maryland, Emergent BioSolutions, a Gaithersburg-based firm with manufacturing facilities in Baltimore designed for emergency drug production, is producing trial vaccines for Johnson & Johnson and three other firms.
Along with development, wide-scale production of vaccine is also considered to be a major challenge.
“Typical vaccine development does take time — a decade or even longer — but these unprecedented times really call for unprecedented measures," said Sean Kirk, Emergent’s executive vice president of manufacturing and technical operations, in a statement. “It is gratifying to see an increased level of collaboration among government and industry partners as we aim to bring forth safe and effective vaccines to protect the public.”
Breaking News Alerts
Though there is no specific vaccine ready, states that had seen a downward trend in cases loosened restrictions on activities and businesses — and that has led to spikes in cases in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
In Maryland this week, following declines in daily cases and other metrics, Gov. Larry Hogan said he would allow more indoor business operations. Since the virus hit the state in mid-March, there have been more than 60,600 cases and 2,773 deaths in Maryland.
At the same time, public health officials at all levels continue to urged the public to take steps to protect themselves and their communities.
“Our COVID-19 response is now in its sixth month; we’re making real progress but we have a lot of work ahead,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a press conference Friday to push for caution as people leave home more.
“People are eager to return to normal activities and ways of life," he said. "But the pandemic has not ended.”
He and Dr. Jay C. Butler, CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, reiterated such advice that outside was safer than inside, small groups were safer than larger groups and masks are needed anytime people are close by.
“We must do these things until there is a vaccine available,” Butler said.