Why Dr. Fauci Is “Cautiously Optimistic”

August 3rd, 2020 by Tom Lynch

As I’ve previously written, until now, vaccines have taken years to develop. The fastest until now? The Mumps vaccine, developed and approved in four years (1963 – 1967) by Maurice Hilleman.

In recent times we have the Ebola vaccine, approved in the U.S. in 2019. Scientists from around the world had tried to develop a vaccine for this deadly disease since the mid-1990s, but funding and, let’s face it, lack of interest in an African disease, continually stalled the work. But a large outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 reignited Pharma’s interest, and last December the FDA approved Merck’s Ervebo vaccine. It took five years.

Now we have COVID-19, the disease caused by  SARS-CoV-2 (the scientific name of the new coronavirus), and immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, is “cautiously optimistic” we’ll have a vaccine by the end of the year. This means we could have needles going into arms in less than a year since the first case was reported. How is that so?

Although Donald Trump would probably swallow his smart phone rather than acknowledge this, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Chinese for the quick start. In early January, before the disease even had a name, a team of Chinese scientists uploaded its genetic sequence to a public site. This kicked off the gold rush-like vaccine hunt. Here are some facts that contribute to the light-speed development:

  • The disease is a coronavirus. Scientists have been trying to develop vaccines for this family of diseases for decades. Coronaviruses are diseases that can leap from animals to humans, and much work had already been done. Vaccine projects currently underway were simply redirected to SARS-CoV-2.
  • Many of the vaccine teams now attacking SARS-CoV-2 had worked on the SARS virus, which in 2003 killed 800 people, and the MERS virus, which has killed 2,500 people since 2012. They were deep into coronaviruses.
  • The earlier projects had identified a part of coronaviruses called the spike protein as a potential target for a vaccine. In particular, the work on SARS had suggested strongly that the spike protein was the key. Moreover, that work had already identified the difficulties inherent in attacking the spike protein.
  • Most people recover from COVID-19. That indicates a conquering immune response that a vaccine can be targeted to induce in people.
  • The spike protein, which gives SARS-CoV-2 the crown-like appearance that’s characteristic of coronaviruses, attaches to receptors on people’s cells, allowing the virus to enter and replicate. By blocking spike proteins, then, vaccines may prevent infection.
  • Money is no object. Because COVID-19 is the biggest health crisis the world has faced in more than 100 years, governments are shoveling unheard of amounts of cash into vaccine development. If vaccine developers don’t have to worry about funding their work, they can try anything and everything without worry. And, most important, the traditional steps taken in vaccine development can be shortened and compressed, which is exactly what’s happening.
  • Government regulators learned a lot from Ebola. During the development of Ervebo, they adopted a new dexterity in streamlining decisions and a nimbleness in communication. That has continued over to COVID-19. Case in point: the FDA has let developers know that vaccines need to prevent infections or reduce the severity of Covid-19 in 50% of recipients to be approved.

Here is where we are now in vaccine development according to the New York Times Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker:

If you’re wondering about that one “Approval” on the far right, that is a vaccine developed by the Chinese company CanSino Biologics. Hong Kong-listed CanSino Biologics said in a filing to the stock exchange that data from clinical trials showed the Chinese military vaccine had a “good safety profile” and potential to prevent disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Consequently, on 25 June, China’s Central Military Commission approved the use of the vaccine for one year. The rest of the world has no idea of whether this vaccine works. One wonders what the soldiers in the Chinese Armed Forces who are being injected with it think of it.

If history is any predictor of the future, most of the vaccines currently under development will fail. However, the sheer size of the effort, as well as the mountains of work already done on SARS and MERS, suggest that Dr. Fauci’s cautious optimism may, indeed, be well founded.