As the pandemic surges worldwide, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle gave the first shot of a potential COVID-19 vaccine to a volunteer.
"We're team coronavirus now," Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr. Lisa Jackson said. "Everyone wants to do what they can in this emergency."
Monday's event was the beginning of a series of studies aimed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work. Even if the research goes well, a vaccine would not be available for extensive use before a year or two, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Some of the study's carefully chosen healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 55, will get higher dosages than others to test how strong the inoculations should be.
Researchers will examine any side effects and draw blood samples to test if the vaccine is activating the immune system, in search of encouraging evidence like the NIH earlier found in vaccinated mice.
"We don't know whether this vaccine will induce an immune response, or whether it will be safe. That's why we're doing a trial," Jackson said. "It's not at the stage where it would be possible or prudent to give it to the general population."
Dozens of research groups around the world are rushing to produce a vaccine against COVID-19.
Most of the vaccine research underway targets a protein called "spike" that studs the surface of the new coronavirus and lets it invade human cells. If the protein is blocked, then people will not get infected.
The idea is thus to transform the body into a mini-factory, that would create some inoffensive spike protein. When the immune system spots the foreign protein, it will make antibodies to attack, and be primed to react quickly if the person later encounters the real virus.
More than 181,300 people worldwide have been infected with the novel virus. What started as an epidemic mainly limited to China has now been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The disease has been detected in most of the countries, with Italy, Iran, and Spain experiencing the most violent outbreaks outside of China.
In the U.S., there have been 4,334 confirmed cases and 77 deaths as of March 16.