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Creating a vaccine for coronavirus

By David, 27 February 2020 News

Article updated 2 April

Microscopic image of a virus stained yellow.

In this electron microscope image, the virus that causes COVID-19 has been coloured yellow.
Image: NIAID-RML

In the fight against the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it’s important to move fast. Some of the world’s best scientists are looking for a vaccine, a drug that teaches your body how to fight an infection before you even get it. However, making a new vaccine for coronavirus is a very big task.

Know your enemy

One of the first steps was to sequence the genome of the virus, revealing its genetic makeup. The first sequence was completed back in December in China, and there are now more than 400 different sequences from labs around the world. You can even download them yourself!

Meanwhile, the Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne was the first lab outside China to grow the virus. This gave scientists a way to get lots of samples of the COVID-19 virus, which are needed for testing vaccines.

The next part was designing a vaccine to test. There are several teams around the world working on the problem. This includes researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc in the United States. These teams have each developed a possible vaccine using genome sequences that other scientists have developed.

A scientist in an inflatable biohazard suit

CSIRO’s AAHL facility has special labs for experiments with deadly diseases.
Image: CSIRO/Frank Filippi

Test, test, test

Before it’s ready to be used, there’s a lot of testing to do. It’s far too dangerous to test on humans straight away, and experiments in test tubes aren’t good enough for the results we need. That means the next stage of testing is on animals.

But scientists need to find the right animal first. Most animals are immune to COVID-19, and that makes it impossible to tell if the vaccine works. Researchers at CSIRO found that ferrets worked well when researching the SARS virus. And luckily, they’ve found ferrets will also suit COVID-19.

Animal trials of the vaccines from University of Oxford and Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc are underway at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory. If the trials succeed, we will know that the vaccines will be safe for ferrets to use, and effective against COVID-19. Then, human trials can begin. In combination, these tests make sure the vaccine doesn’t hurt humans, and that it gives us the protection we need.

Sprinting to the finish

Normally, it can take years or even decades for a vaccine to be developed, tested and used. But the COVID-19 outbreak is a big emergency, and scientists think they might have a vaccine for coronavirus ready and tested in merely months as opposed to years which is usually how long it takes to develop a vaccine.

Even if none of these vaccines work, there are several teams across the world working on different ways to make a vaccine. And the world only needs one of them to work!

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Health experts say washing your hands properly is very important to limit the spread of many diseases. Read about how many Australians don’t wash their hands enough, and try an experiment to see how good you are at washing your own hands.

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