Coronavirus vaccines are coming, but when will they arrive?

June 17, 2020

Coronavirus vaccines are coming, perhaps as soon as the end of the year, offering hope for a world rocked by pandemic. So, what’s involved in making a new vaccine? How is the science progressing? And how soon will vaccines be available? Leading universities, biotech firms, government labs and big pharma — Pfizer’s CEO aims for a vaccine by year’s end — are racing to solve the problem. USC experts explain what’s involved with the vaccine moon shot.

Contact: Gary Polakovic (323) 527-7770 or

New vaccine must balance expediency, efficacy and safety

Pin Wang is a professor of materials sciences and biomedical and chemical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He is an expert in using molecular engineering to understand immune system responses and develop new targeted treatments, including vaccines, for diseases.

“Right now, we’re on an accelerated path to vaccine development for coronavirus, while paying sufficient attention to the potential side effects,” Wang said. “We are cutting a lot of corners because we are desperate, so there’s urgency. We have to be sure the product doesn’t cause harm. It’s a very challenging task, but that’s the only option right now. We don’t have much choice.”

He added:

  • Good evidence to indicate a vaccine will work should be in hand by the end of the year. “I am optimistic because the data from some of the preclinical studies is looking promising,” he said.
  • Coronavirus vaccine research is advancing on four platforms, each of which has advantages to stimulate immunity to the virus.
  • Vaccine platforms under development include coronavirus antigens delivered by DNA/RNA, protein, hybrid viruses, or inactivated coronaviruses, each intended to promote the body’s natural defenses.
  • A successful vaccine still might not completely prevent all the coronavirus infections or symptoms.
  • Advanced technologies, including genetic engineering, gene sequencing, electron microscopes, super computers and global communications, are big advantages versus pandemic not available a decade or two ago.

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New vaccines often face a long, difficult path to approval


Frances Richmond is a professor and founding chair of the Department of Regulatory and Quality Sciences at the D.K. Kim International Center for Regulatory Science at the USC School of Pharmacy. She is an expert in clinical trial regulatory issues.

“The development and approval path for a vaccine is long and fraught with hurdles. Any one of those could affect the release of the product.  To have a commercially available drug by Jan. 1 will be very challenging, and perhaps impossible. It is a really difficult process with a lot of variables,” Richmond said.

She added:

  • It usually takes two years to bring a new drug to market even after large clinical trials are underway, though priority drugs can advance faster.
  • Preparing a vaccine requires detailed lab testing, animal experiments and human trials, plus ensuring that adequate production facilities, quality control and distribution chains are in place.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rigorously scrutinizes each step.
  • Failure to regulate new vaccines can lead to products that cause side effects or harm to people.
  • More than 100 coronavirus vaccines are advancing, which could potentially swamp the FDA review process.



Multiple vaccines may be needed to stop coronavirus


Paula Cannon is a distinguished professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She is an expert in how viruses are transmitted and controlled.

“We’re going to have a range of solutions with, say version 1.0 vaccine that is good enough and better than nothing available quickly, followed by better vaccines next year using different platforms, like versions 2.0 and 3.0. The early vaccines may have some limitations, but they will provide much more protection than we have now, and it will be full steam ahead to distribute it far and wide. We shouldn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Cannon said.

She added:

  • Quest for this vaccine proceeds like a team sport with lots of collaboration among universities, government labs, private foundations and corporations rather than a fight or race between parties.
  • Unlike in the past, research is occurring broadly and simultaneously, rather than sequentially, across many collaborators and delivery systems to move a product to market swiftly.
  • “It’s not necessarily a race between companies, but it’s about many people working together as the human race against the virus,” Cannon said.
  • The novel coronavirus is a relatively easy target, “a vanilla virus, not very stealthy or tricky,” she said, especially compared to HIV or influenza, increasing confidence it can be stopped.
  • USC’s role in vaccine research is contributing data, sharing expertise and exploring if some staff might participate in vaccine clinical trials.



(top photo/iStock)