(16 Mar 2020) U.S. researchers gave the first shot to the first person in a test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine Monday — leading off a worldwide hunt for protection even as the pandemic surges.
With a careful jab in a healthy volunteer’s arm, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle begin an anxiously awaited first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time after the new virus exploded from China and fanned across the globe.
“These are people who are volunteering to be in a trial for a vaccine that’s never been given to humans before,” Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr. Lisa Jackson said on the eve of the experiment.
Monday’s milestone marked just the beginning of a series of studies in people needed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work. Even if the research goes well, a vaccine wouldn’t be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. That’s still important if the virus becomes a long-term threat.
This vaccine candidate, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the NIH and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. There’s no chance participants could get infected from the shots because they don’t contain the coronavirus itself.
It’s not the only potential vaccine in the pipeline. Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine against COVID-19. Another candidate, made by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, is expected to begin its own safety study — in the U.S., China and South Korea — next month.
The Seattle experiment got underway days after the World Health Organization declared the new virus outbreak a pandemic because of its rapid global spread, infecting more than 169,000 people and killing more than 6,500.
Starting what scientists call a first-in-humans study is a momentous occasion for scientists, but Jackson described her team’s mood as “subdued.” They’ve been working round-the-clock readying the research in a part of the U.S. struck early and hard by the virus.
Still, “going from not even knowing that this virus was out there … to have any vaccine” in testing in about two months is unprecedented, Jackson told The AP.
Some of the study’s carefully chosen healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 55, will get higher dosages than others to test how strong the inoculations should be. Scientists will check for any side effects and draw blood samples to test if the vaccine is revving up the immune system, looking for encouraging clues like the NIH earlier found in vaccinated mice.
The Seattle research institute is part of a government network of centers that test all kinds of vaccines, and was chosen for the coronavirus vaccine study before COVID-19 began spreading widely in Washington state.
Kaiser Permanente screened dozens of people, looking for those who have no chronic health problems and aren’t currently sick. Researchers aren’t checking whether would-be volunteers already had a mild case of COVID-19 before deciding if they’re eligible. If some did, scientists will be able to tell by the number of antibodies in their pre-vaccination blood test and account for that, Jackson said. Participants will be paid $100 for each clinic visit in the study.
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