Don’t Bank on a COVID-19 Vaccine, Say Top Scientists

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
April 20, 2020Updated: April 20, 2020

The world’s leading experts on the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, have warned against banking on a vaccine for the disease, because there is no guarantee one can be developed.

The chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on Sunday that even if new vaccines are developed for protection against the CCP virus, they would be “long shots” because it would take time to ensure that it is safe.

“All new vaccines that come into development are long shots. Only some end up being successful,” he said. “Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges for vaccine development. This will take time.”

This week, researchers from Oxford University are set to begin human trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine and believe a million doses will be available by September, even before trials prove whether the shot is effective.

Professor Sarah Gilbert, who is leading the British scientists’ efforts, admitted Sunday that success could not be guaranteed, and that scientists believed COVID-19 patients could be reinfected with the virus after recovery.

“I think it probably is likely that if someone has been infected, they will be able to be reinfected in the future,” she told the BBC. “We don’t know the interval yet.”

She said immunity acquired after infection may not last as long as a vaccine-induced immunity.

Gilbert’s comments came as Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top emergencies expert, told reporters that the U.N. agency is unsure whether the presence of antibodies in blood gives full protection against reinfection with the CCP virus.

Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) attends a news conference
Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization, attends a news conference on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the United Nations in Geneva on May 3, 2019. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Ryan also said that even if antibodies were effective there was little sign that large numbers of people had developed them and were beginning to offer so-called “herd immunity” to the broader population.

“A lot of preliminary information coming to us right now would suggest quite a low percentage of population have seroconverted [to produce antibodies],” he said at a briefing on Friday. “The expectation that … the majority in society may have developed antibodies, the general evidence is pointing against that, so it may not solve the problem of governments.”

As more than 70 establishments race to develop a vaccine for the virus around the world, a separate leading expert on the disease warned last week that the threat of the CCP virus may be around “for the foreseeable future.”

“Some viruses are very, very difficult when it comes to vaccine development—so for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat,” said David Nabarro, a professor of global health at London’s Imperial College and an envoy for the WHO on COVID-19.

“That means isolating those who show signs of the disease and also their contacts,” he told the UK’s Observer newspaper. “Older people will have to be protected. In addition hospital capacity for dealing with cases will have to be ensured. That is going to be the new normal for us all.”

More than 2.4 million people have been reported to be infected by the CCP virus worldwide and at least 165,338 have died, according to a tracking map by Johns Hopkins University, although the figures are believed by some experts to be unreliable owing to inaccurate data from China.

Reuters contributed to this report.