The World Health Organization said Tuesday that a vaccine for the disease caused by the new coronavirus could come as late as the end of 2021, dampening hopes from the group's earlier prediction that it may be available by the middle of next year.
WHO Western Pacific Region Coordinator Socorro Escalante said that going by the target date of COVAX, a WHO-led global scheme for fair distribution of future vaccines against COVID-19, a widespread and affordable vaccine would not be available in the market for more than a year.
"When we are looking at the target of COVAX, it's by the end of 2021 that they are trying to come up with the first 2 billion doses that will be allocated to all countries who are participating," Escalante said, based on the current progress of vaccine trials under the scheme.
In September, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters that widespread vaccinations are not expected until the middle of next year.
The latest remark from Escalante pushes the prospect of its availability by several months, indicating a longer wait time is needed to curb the spread of the virus through a vaccine.
He said that 193 candidate vaccines are currently under trial, 42 of which are in advanced stages, with 10 others already in Phase 3 efficacy trials in which scientists give the vaccine to thousands of people and wait to see how many become infected, compared with volunteers who received a placebo.
Despite this, Escalante said that China and Russia are conducting their own clinical trials on potential vaccines, suggesting the medicine may be commercially available at an earlier time if the two countries become successful.
Four vaccine candidates in China are waiting for authorization from health authorities, she said, adding that another one from Russia is awaiting the same regulatory approval.
Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said people will need to learn to live with the virus until an effective and safe vaccine becomes available.
Governments will need to strengthen their healthcare capacity and other public health systems until then to deal with expected multiple surges in the future, Kasai said.
He said that in the meantime, people should continue to practice health-conscious behaviors such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and other health precautions suggested by medical experts to prevent virus spread.
The novel coronavirus has infected over 35 million people worldwide, resulting in more than 1 million deaths as of Tuesday according to the WHO.