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Inside the global race for a coronavirus vaccine

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (2020). "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" [Micrograph]. Retrieved from Flickr.

Note from the editor

Vaccine developers faced a daunting challenge in January, when the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was first posted online.

Many years, or even decades, are usually needed for scientists to learn how to rein in new viruses and to design vaccines that can check their infectious spread. As coronavirus outbreaks grew into a devastating pandemic, governments anxious for help demanded researchers work faster than ever before.

Seven months later, what's remarkable is how much has gone humanity's way in a desperate global race to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. That race has produced more than 160 experimental candidates, nearly 30 of which are now in human studies. And while none have been proven safe and effective, the early signs from a half-dozen experimental shots are encouraging.

For several of the most advanced candidates, inoculation appears to result in antibody levels equivalent or higher than what's been observed in people who've recovered from COVID-19 — a useful guidepost for protection, experts believe. Most importantly, initial data for the frontrunners haven't turned up any side effects severe enough to stop development.

For a scientific effort that began half a year ago, the preliminary data suggest it's plausible at least one vaccine, and potentially several, will be successful.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, of course. Scientists need to quickly enroll tens of thousands of people into studies at hospitals still overstretched with cases; those studies need to prove vaccines actually protect from infection or COVID-19 across age groups; and broader testing could still show rarer side effects that rule out general use.

But promises that a vaccine could be developed in less than two years now no longer seem quite as far-fetched.

Ned Pagliarulo Lead Editor

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