CDC scientist Janet McAllister has worked to combat COVID-19 outbreaks in Wisconsin. She is pictured here working in her lab in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Photo: @cdcgov on Instagram

“Vaccine: a suspension of live or inactivated microorganisms administered to induce immunity and prevent infectious diseases,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the world continues to suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed over a million people worldwide, a vaccine is a necessity. But the public health preparedness planning must also be in place to enhance the vaccine development and distribution process. 

The COVID-19 virus is one of a family of coronaviruses, many of which only cause mild to moderate symptoms. Other coronaviruses, like the SARS coronavirus that emerged in 2002 and caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, and the MERS coronavirus identified in 2012 that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome, triggered serious, and sometimes fatal illness.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota, because of previous research and vaccines for these closely related illnesses, the research and testing process accelerates for the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the New York Times, the meticulous research and testing of the COVID-19 vaccine may be finished by the end of the year, as scientists around the world are currently testing 44 vaccines in clinical trials on humans. The vaccine must go through three phases of trials that involve humans: safety trials, expanded trials and efficacy trials.

Safety trials involve distributing the vaccine to a small number of people in order to test the safety and dosage. The vaccine is then given to different groups of people in the expanded trials, such as young and elderly people, in order to determine how the vaccine affects different ages and immune systems.

Finally, in the efficacy trials, the vaccine is distributed to thousands of diverse groups of people to compare the effects against subjects who receive a placebo. China and Russia have approved vaccines without the results of the phase three efficacy trial, which according to experts, poses serious risks.

Some U.S. researchers are already working through phase three, according to the CDC. But vaccine experts have said that February 2021 would be the very earliest that a vaccine might be available to the general public, and that it would more likely be July or August, according to The New York Times.

But many in the United States are most curious about the distribution process. Most vaccines under development by U.S. drug companies will need to be stored at extremely low temperatures, as low as -98 degrees Fahrenheit, according the The Washington Times.

“The [vaccination] process will be lengthy, considering that the vaccine needs to be frozen for distribution, said Piedmont Hospital oncologist Dr. Eric Mininberg. “Also, access to healthcare for people in poverty is already limited, so the government would need to provide transportation, education, distribution points and money.”

Questions of how vaccine production will affect the function of schools, jobs and other daily activities also remain. Education Week claims that schools could serve as a distribution point for the vaccine and names teachers and other school employees as likely recipients of the vaccine in the second wave. The first wave, according to Education Week, might include health care workers, people who are elderly, and those with health conditions that make them more vulnerable. 

But the vaccine process faces challenges beyond distribution, including the need to ensure long term protection from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and safety. According to the Mayo Clinic, a previous SARS vaccine sometimes caused lung damage in recipients, underlining the need for COVID-19 vaccine developers to proceed with caution.

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