A global group of virus experts warned Thursday about relying too much on the first vaccines to end the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we get a perfect vaccine, great, but that’s unlikely” said Dr. Robert Gallo, co-founder of the Global Virus Network, during a news conference following a meeting of the organization that works to understand and treat infectious diseases.
It may not be welcome news to the public, weary of wearing masks, keeping their distance, and participating in testing and tracing efforts, the group acknowledged. But ongoing public cooperation will be needed, said Gallo, director of Institute of Human Virology in the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine.
Gallo and other scientists said the first vaccine or two will be helpful but likely won’t be permanently and fully protective. That makes it imperative that the world’s scientists work together to develop faster and more reliable tests and powerful treatments to identify and manage the virus.
“Nothing could be more valuable” than a reliable molecular test done cheaply at home in like two hours, Gallo said.
Those with or exposed to COVID-19 can be quarantined, reducing new targets for the virus. Almost 32 million people globally have been infected with the illness caused by the coronavirus and nearly 1 million have died, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Drugs, new and repurposed, are needed to prevent the disease from progressing beyond early stages, though research now is largely focused on treatments for the sickest patients, the scientists said. The antiviral remdesivir, for example, was approved for emergency use in hospitalized patients.
There are several vaccine candidates to prevent the coronavirus in the final phase of testing, and one could be approved by government regulators in coming months, said Konstantin Chumakov, associate director for research in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine division.
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“Everyone wants a vaccine yesterday, and we’re doing our best,” he said. “I don’t have crystal ball, but it could happen late this year or early next year if everything goes well. There are many potential problems.”
He said showing safety and efficacy are both crucial. Then, manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine will take many more months to ramp up.
The scientists also said the vaccine could have side effects that deter some healthy people from wanting it. Public opinion polls already show many people have concerns about safety, doubts fueled by the accelerated testing process, but also by the false information that spreads easily on social media.
The scientists said for this pandemic and the next, what’s needed is a stable of therapies that effectively manage or even cure COVID-19 — which is how HIV and hepatitis C are treated because there is no preventive vaccine for those diseases.
One option to temporarily stem coronavirus infections, Gallo said, is using an existing vaccine for polio that produces a general immune response that would wear off, potentially after several months. It’s not currently available in the United States but still used in other countries.
Scientists already are testing a host of options, but the group said the effort will have multiple fronts and be a long-term endeavor.
“There are many things we just do not know,” said Dr. Christian Bréchot, a French doctor who is president of the Global Virus Network and former president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. “Maybe there will be a seasonal variation, maybe a slowdown. We have to prepare. We have to live with this virus.”