The year 2020 has certainly been one to remember. With unprecedented quarantine measures, over 225,000 American deaths, widespread financial worries and deteriorating mental health throughout the US, hopes of returning to a life anywhere near what we’re familiar could depend on one thing: a successful vaccine.
At this time, there are 170+ COVID-19 vaccines being tracked by the World Health Organization. In a usual setting, vaccines require years of testing followed by additional time to be able to produce the vaccine at a worldwide scale. But because of the urgency, scientists are aiming to develop and release a vaccine to protect people from the coronavirus within 12-18 months.
On October 21st, this is how the tracked vaccines were distributed:
- 154 vaccines not yet undergoing human trials.
- 36 vaccines in phase one — small-scale safety trials.
- 16 vaccines in phase two — expanded safety trials.
- 11 vaccines in phase three — large-scale efficacy trials.
- 0 vaccines approved for general use.
Why is it Taking So Long?
Vaccines work by mimicking the virus (or part of the virus) they protect people against. They stimulate the immune system into thinking a person is infected with the virus, thereby creating antibodies. Vaccines are strictly regulated and must follow higher safety standards than other drugs because they’re given to millions of healthy people worldwide.
A vaccine typically takes 10+ years to be released to the public and can cost up to $500 million. This is how the time is broken down:
- 2-5 years for discovery research and development.
- 2 years for preclinical studies.
- 1-2 years for phase one and small-scale safety trials.
- 2-3 years for phase two and expanded safety trials.
- 2-4 years for phase three and large-scale efficacy trials.
- 1-2 years for regulatory reviews and approvals.
Following this guide, vaccines can take up to 18 years to be released publicly. When you consider scientists are aiming to release a COVID-19 vaccine a little more than one year after the disease was discovered, 12-18 months doesn’t seem like such a long wait.
How Scientists are Speeding Up the Process
Companies aren’t cutting corners on trials and testing to reduce the release time for a vaccine. Instead they’re looking for innovative solutions that will make the vaccine publicly available without putting anyone’s health at risk.
Pfizer, one of the pharmaceutical giants developing a COVID-19 vaccine, has already started the manufacturing process. This way, the company can significantly reduce manufacturing times as the vaccines will be ready to be distributed as soon as they’re approved. Manufacturing doesn’t normally begin until after the approval process, prolonging the release of a vaccine by several years.
CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla said the company expects to know if the vaccine is successful by the end of October. He explained, "We have already manufactured hundreds of thousands of doses," allowing Pfizer to be ready for distribution once the vaccine is approved by the FDA.
When Exactly Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Be Ready?
CDC Director Robert Redfield explained that he expects a vaccine to initially be available between November and December 2020. However, it will be in very limited supply and will be prioritized to those most in need.
He doesn’t anticipate a vaccine being available to the general American public until the second or third quarter of 2021.
These estimations are assuming the FDA approves at least one of the vaccines currently in phase three of testing. If none of the vaccines are approved, we could be waiting significantly longer before vaccination is an option.
When Will Dental Professionals Get the Vaccine?
The World Health Organization has created a preliminary guide for global vaccine allocation, indicating the most at-risk groups that should receive the vaccine first. The highest priority group is made of people with “a significantly elevated risk of severe disease or death”, including older adults with an age-based risk and those living in high-risk living situations where they can’t socially distance.
The second highest priority group includes “health workers at high or very high risk, as defined by interim guidance forthcoming from WHO and ILO”. Until that list is delivered, we can only speculate as to whether or not it includes dental professionals.
Due to the nature of the job, dentists, hygienists and assistants are some of the healthcare workers that are at most risk of contracting diseases and should be prioritized when a vaccine is released. This means dental professionals could expect to be vaccinated as early as November or December 2020.
If WHO and ILO don’t include dental professionals in the second highest priority group, it could be a lot longer until they can receive a vaccine. The third highest priority group will be vaccinated to reduce societal and economic disruption. These people include age groups at risk of transmitting the disease, school-aged children and workers who are unable to work remotely or social distance.
Dental professionals could be included in this group as, despite the benefits of teledentistry, they’re unable to completely work from home (some patients require emergency in-practice treatment) and they can’t always social distance inside the practice when treating patients. If dentists, hygienists and assistants are classed under the third highest priority group, they could anticipate vaccines to be available within the first quarter of 2021.
The fourth and final priority group will be vaccinated to protect the ongoing functioning of essential services. Health workers are listed at the top of this group, along with essential workers outside the health sector and government leaders. It’s possible dental professionals could be grouped under health workers and receive the vaccine significantly later than any other prioritized group — in the second quarter of 2021.
It’s a waiting game
Although things are gradually becoming clearer, it’s still a guessing game as to when dental professionals will receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If everything goes well and at least one vaccine is approved by the FDA, dentists, hygienists and assistants could expect to be vaccinated as early as November 2020. But failing that, vaccination might not be available to people working in dentistry until summer 2021.
Until a successful vaccine is widely available, the best way to stop the spread of the virus and reduce the risk of becoming infected is to practice what you’ve been doing for several months. Wearing appropriate PPE, encouraging social distancing whenever possible and vigorous cleaning. These habits might be getting tiring by now, but it’s our best bet to survive the pandemic.