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When can we expect a vaccine for COVID-19? How will we ensure that it is safe? The WHO’s Top Scientist Explains

When can we expect a vaccine for COVID-19? How will we ensure that it is safe? Who should be vaccinated first and why?

A new podcast from the World Health Organization seeks to answer some of the public’s most pressing questions about COVID-19.

The podcast, called Science in 5, culls some of the most-asked questions about the coronavirus pandemic and puts those questions to scientists and experts from the WHO.

WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, answers key questions about vaccines for COVID-19 that are currently in development.


A World Health Organization Expert Answers Questions about a COVID-19 Vaccine


Vismita: Hello and welcome to Science in 5, WHO’s conversations in science. Today, we are talking about vaccines with WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan. Welcome, Soumya.

Soumya: Thanks, Vismita. Nice to be with you.

Vismita: So Soumya, everyone wants to know: when we can expect a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19?

Soumya: What’s really good is that so many vaccine candidates are being developed around the world; more than 200. About 31 of them have come into the clinical phases of testing. As you know, we go through phase 1 and then 2 and 3in clinical trials and there are at least eight candidates now, which are in the late stages of clinical testing. So, what this means is that we will start seeing the results from some of these clinical trials by the end of 2020 or early 2021 and we’ll start getting an idea about how they’re performing, both in terms of safety and in terms of their efficacy — that is, their protective power. After the clinical trial results are available, the regulators around the world will have to look at that data and make the decisions on approving them. Then, vaccines need to be produced and shipped all over the world. So, by the time people actually start getting this vaccine— hopefully there’ll be more than one or two vaccines that turn out to be good — it would be somewhere in the middle of 2021.

Vismita: And before we get into vaccines a little more, could you please describe to us what the ideal vaccine for COVID-19 would be like?

Soumya: So, for a COVID vaccine, we would like to see one that’s very, very effective. So, protecting at least 70% of people that receive the vaccine, and the minimum standard that we’ve set is 50%. So, at least 50% should be protected. It must be safe both in the short term and in the long term. It should be safe for different age groups— from children to pregnant women to the elderly. Ideally, it should be given in a single shot. It should provide immunity for as long as possible, certainly for several years.And, it should be easy to store and distribute, which means that it should not require ultra cold storage facilities, which are not available in many places.

Vismita: Soumya, as the world rushes to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, there are concerns about its safety and efficacy. How will WHO and countries ensure that this vaccine is safe?

Soumya: That’s a really important question, because the public must be reassured that the standards that have been set globally for licensing vaccines and drugs are going to be followed in this case, as well, and that there will be no shortcuts. So, while we talk about speed and scale and what we can do to support that, we must remember the benchmarks that have been set. So, we talked about the minimum efficacy of a vaccine, the safety profile of a vaccine,

the other characteristics of the vaccine that regulators would look at. Those must be fulfilled and the developers must be able to show the data, both to the regulatory agencies and countries,

as well as to WHO. And as you know, we have a process called prequalification, where we give a vaccine or a drug, a stamp of quality approval, and all of these factors are taken into consideration. We also have the Scientific Advisory Group of Experts on immunization, the SAGE, that makes the policy guidance on vaccines. And they’re going to be looking at this data very carefully before they make recommendations on: the use of vaccines; which populations; what precautions are to be taken; how it is to be used, et cetera.

Vismita: Soumya, once a vaccine is approved for mass deployment, how would WHO and health authorities decide who should get this vaccine and why?

Soumya: So, this is something that we’ve been discussing with the Member States, with countries. I think every government is thinking about this now, people are thinking about it. This is also an ethical question for people and I think there’s a sort of general agreement now that those at highest risk of infection — the frontline workers

and the healthcare workers really impacted by COVID-19 — they need to be protected, those who are at the front lines who have to do their jobs in order to keep everybody else safe and healthy. Because we’re going to have limited doses of vaccines initially,

so everyone cannot get it, you know, on day one. It’s going to take months and years to be able to ramp up to the billions of doses needed to protect, you know, 60, 70% of the population. So, next in line would be those who are highly vulnerable : the elderly, people who have preexisting diseases, underlying conditions, which put them at higher risk of mortality and of getting seriously ill with COVID. So, those would be the people to prioritize and then gradually one could expand into the other parts of the population as well.

Vismita: Thank you, Souyma. There, you have it, WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan giving you the latest on vaccines. Remember, as new information comes in, WHO will keep you updated through our website and various social media channels. So stay tuned, stay safe and stick with science.


Related: How the World Will Get a Coronavirus Vaccine