As several coronavirus vaccines across the world have reached the final testing phases now, at least five different predictions for when a working vaccine would come to the market are circulating, but the answer is far from guaranteed.
The Belgian Medicine Agency (FAMHP) has said it expects a coronavirus vaccine in March 2021, Russia reportedly already has one and US President Donald Trump promised one by next month.
With that in mind, when do experts think an effective and safe vaccine can realistically be expected?
On 11 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a coronavirus vaccine had been approved for use in the country and that one of his daughters had already received it. The vaccine had been tested, is safe and was capable of providing “stable immunity” against the coronavirus, Putin said.
Russian scientists reported that the vaccine has produced “no serious side effects” so far, and want to start vaccinating as of September, without waiting for the results of the third and final phase of the clinical tests.
According to United States President Donald Trump, a coronavirus vaccine could be ready as soon as October, ahead of the Presidential elections in early November.
During a press conference on Monday, he repeated his promise, saying that the vaccine would be “very safe and very effective.”
Clinical trials have not yet been completed, however, and some scientists fear that the push for a vaccine is driven by politics rather than health and safety, reports BBC.
The European Union is aiming closer to the end of this year. “Maybe as early as November, but let’s say December, by the end of the year we will have started the first doses,” said Deputy Director-General Sandra Gallina of the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety in the relevant parliamentary committee on Monday.
According to her, it is then possible that a vaccine would be available on a massive scale by mid-April 2021. “A very important element is that the vaccine must be effective and safe. For the sake of clarity, we are not going to skimp on that,” she said.
At the end of August, the Commission clinched a deal with multinational giant AstraZeneca for at least 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine going through late-stage clinical trials.
In Belgium, chief of Belgium’s AFMPS medicines agency Xavier De Cuyper, has said he expects the vaccine in the spring of 2021. “On the basis of all the information that I have, I dare say that, by March 2021, we will have a vaccine against Covid-19 in Belgium,” he said.
“It is a two-stage process,” De Cuyper said last week. “The first is the negotiation of the doses: when and how much are we going to get?” The second element is the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. “I can give you 200% certainty. We are going to be very strict.”
According to Belgian infectious disease expert Erika Vlieghe, however, we need to be “careful” with these predictions and announcements. “Everyone is so tired of [the virus] and clinging to [the promise of a vaccine]. But we cannot set our minds on expecting to vaccinate people in March,” she said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that it does not expect widespread vaccination against Covid-19 until mid-2021.
“As you know, a considerable number of candidates have now entered Phase 3 trials. We know of at least 6 to 9 that have already come a long way in terms of research,” said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris at a press briefing in Geneva, on Friday.
“But in terms of a realistic timetable, we really do not expect to see widespread vaccination before the middle of next year,” she added.
Another Belgian expert, vaccinologist at the University of Antwerp Pierre Van Damme, pointed out that even though the European Commission said that they will have vaccines by the end of this year, that does not mean people will already be vaccinated by then.
“They are not yet talking about rolling out major vaccination programmes either,” he told VRT on Tuesday, adding that we have to be watchful for a powerplay between the EU and the US.
March 2021 is a “best-case scenario,” but May or June would be more realistic, according to him. “A number of companies are now working on the third and final phase, mainly to see if the vaccine works,” he explains.
“These are studies involving up to 30,000 people, the results of which we will not see until the end of this year at the earliest. It will not be possible to give the green light for the vaccine to be put on the market until the beginning of 2021. So it is all very conditional.”
“Around mid-2021 seems like a realistic estimate,” Van Damme said, adding that this does not mean that everyone will be able to be vaccinated by then. “I am talking about the at-risk groups: all health workers and all patients at risk.” This would add up to 3 to 4 million Belgians.
According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, 30% of Belgians are considering not being vaccinated, placing Belgium among the countries with the highest number of respondents who expressed some degree of averseness to a vaccine, landing above the global average of 26%.
“The argument used is that the vaccine cannot be safe because it was developed too quickly,” said Van Damme. “However, all the steps of a normal vaccine development have been followed, but we did give priority to this vaccine, and that explains the speed.”