Scientists from Italy are reporting having engineered a MERS virus that could be used in a vaccine, the second announcement in recent days of progress toward a preventive shot for the new coronavirus.
The developments will likely generate hopeful headlines and may create impressions that if MERS starts to spread globally a vaccine might be quickly available to help combat the new virus.
Don’t bet on it.
It would take at least five to 10 years to make and test a MERS vaccine, get it approved by drug regulatory agencies and scale up production to the point where a commercial product is widely available, experts in vaccine development admit. And at the moment, it’s not at all clear any company would take the financial risk involved in pushing a MERS vaccine project past the early scientific phases.
“There’s a long way to go from showing in a research laboratory that you’ve got a potential candidate vaccine to actually producing a bottle of that vaccine that is going to be used or stockpiled,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the national school of tropical medicine at Baylor School of Medicine in Houston, Tex.
“Our technical ability to make (experimental) vaccines has sort of outpaced our social and political and economic infrastructure to figure out how to do this.”
In fact, developing a vaccine to prevent infection in camels or whatever animal turns out to be transmitting the virus to people may be a more realistic and rapidly achievable goal, some experts following the MERS situation suggest.
Animal vaccines are far cheaper to make. Getting them through the approval process is also substantially easier than persuading regulators like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada to green light a new vaccine for use in people.
“The first commercial West Nile vaccine for horses was licensed two years after the introduction in the U.S. of the virus (in 1999),” says Dr. Tom Monath, a vaccinologist who is a founder of One Health Initiative, an organization that focuses on the intersection of animal and human diseases.
“We still don’t have a human vaccine. I mean, we have an experimental human vaccine, but nothing approved.”