Fifteen or 20 years to create a new vaccine is considered quite speedy. So the federal government’s blueprint for a shot to stop the SARS epidemic in a mere three years seems positively head-snapping.
Can it be done?
Certainly, says Dr. Gary Nabel, chief of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If everything went perfectly,” he qualifies. “If all the stars were aligned.”
The stars almost never align precisely in medical research. But if they do, Nabel says scientists will finish all the basic lab work, creating the vaccine, testing it in animals, in just one year.
Then they will spend two more trying it out on people to make sure it works, turn the results over to the Food and Drug Administration and be done.
No vaccine in modern times has gone from start to finish nearly that fast. But even if Nabel’s time line proves unrealistic, his willingness to state it out loud shows how seriously the government takes SARS.
The strategy for changing the pace from glacial to galactic: Forget solving problems one at a time.
At Nabel’s institute, two teams are working separately to create possible vaccines. One sticks to the time-tested approach of making them with dead or weakened viruses. The other builds them with up-to-the-second gene-splicing tools.
Instead of dealing with big technical issues in the usual one-by-one order, scientists will jump into all of them at once.
For instance, they are gearing up production of newly minted vaccines at the same time they figure out how to test them in animals and tease apart exactly how the human immune system does the job of fighting off SARS on its own.
“Parallel tracking,” Nabel calls this. It’s also called science in a hurry.
Why the rush? Why work so hard to defend against a disease that is just a few months old, that has yet to kill a single person in the United States?
No one knows how bad SARS will become, whether it will burn out or continue to spread, even exactly how it makes people so sick. But the consensus among the country’s top health officials is that it would be foolish to wait and see.
Even if SARS is somehow contained in China and Taiwan, many experts doubt it will ever be wiped from the planet, even though this is the World Health Organization’s goal.
More likely, they say, the virus will come and go, perhaps in some seasonal pattern, maybe by chance.
No matter what happens in the next few months, federal officials promise to keep working on a vaccine so the world will be ready whenever, wherever SARS returns.
“We need a vaccine. There’s no question about it,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the Infectious Disease Institute. “This is potentially disastrous enough that we can’t just hope it will go away and stay away.”