Trials for coronavirus vaccine begin

Kenyan researchers say it will be at least a year before any vaccine is available

In Summary

• The World Health Organization says that by March 13, there were 41 different trial vaccines being developed across the world.

• Leading virologist and immunologist Prof Omu Anzala said rials could take longer if the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease,  or COVID-19, mutates further. 

The WHO has said a vaccine is likely to be found but it will take time.
ON TRIAL: The WHO has said a vaccine is likely to be found but it will take time.

The first person was injected with a trial coronavirus vaccine yesterday, raising hopes the vaccine could be available next year, or in 2022.

Researchers will inject 45 people to see if the trial vaccine is safe and if it actually stimulates the body's immune system to fight the virus.

The trial is taking place in Seattle, United States, and is conducted by the biotechnology company Moderna.


The World Health Organization said that by March 13, some 41 different trial vaccines were being developed across the world.

But Kenyan researchers said it will take at least one year before any vaccine is available on the market. 

The vaccine has to undergo four stages before it's allowed in the market. In the first stage, it is tested on animals.

"It can be a monkey or a mouse but scientists prefer a monkey since we have many things in common,” said Dr Nelly Mugo, chief research officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

“The vaccine is later used on a small group of people who are extremely healthy in the second stage to see if it can work,” Mugo said.

She said that the number of people is expanded in the third stage.

The Seattle vaccine candidate — called mRNA-1723 — was not tested in mice before beginning human clinical trials, angering some researchers who are concerned about what they call lack of ethical and safety standards that could put trial participants at greater than acceptable risk.


Leading virologist and immunologist Prof Omu Anzala said the trials could take longer if the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, mutates further. 

"The earliest we're talking about is two years because of the nature of the virus. Some vaccines might even enhance the virus," he said at a public forum at the University of Nairobi. 

China shared publicly the full sequence of the virus in January,  kickstarting efforts around the world to develop vaccines.

Vaccines have historically taken two to five years to develop. 

A vaccine works by helping the immune system learn to recognise a specific threat by tricking it into thinking it’s under attack.

Then it can produce the antibodies it needs without having to face a real infection.

Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the CEO of Lancet Group of Laboratories, said if the SARS-CoV-2  does not mutate, it may take a minimum eight months for a vaccine to be available.

"For the current virus, it's easy to come up with a vaccine. It is not as hard as HIV," he told the Star.

"But safety testing takes a long time."

He said Kenya is lucky to have had time to prepare before an outbreak here.

"You can’t stop the virus for now but you can flatten the peak, as Singapore did, by taking it seriously. The US and Italy took it lightly and that's why they have a crisis." 

Nairobi-based public health specialist Dr Cosmas Mugambi also says a vaccine will not be available this year.

"No vaccine or effective antiviral drug will be available soon; challenges of Phase 3 trials are obvious and manufacturing at scale requires 12 to 18 months," he told the Star.

While the number of coronavirus cases has surpassed 127,000 globally, more than 70,000 people have fully recovered, while the rest are receiving treatment.

Of the 4,700 people who have died, the majority were older adults with pre-existing health conditions that had already compromised their immune systems.

Head of Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital Dr Wilson Aruasa said on Friday the majority of patients across the world exhibit only mild to moderate symptoms.

WHO says these mild symptoms include cough and fever. They could be like a cold or the flu.

WHO said those who experience mild illness typically recover within two weeks, while those who experience a more severe illness could take as long as six weeks to recover. 

"Those with mild symptoms will require isolation at home and monitoring. Only when they deteriorate will they be hospitalised," Dr Aruasa told the Star.


(Edited by V. Graham)