What the world will look like if a COVID-19 vaccine is never developed.


Right now more than 40 labs around the world, including here in Australia, are working around the clock on a vaccine for COVID-19 – the deadly virus that has so far killed more than 240,000 people worldwide.

We’ve been told that life won’t really go back to normal until that vaccine is found.

It would normally take years, if not decades, to develop. But at least two groups of researchers – in Queensland, Australia and Oxford, UK – have indicated they might have one ready by September.

Listen to Mamamia’s daily news podcast on the reality of a COVID-19 vaccine. Post continues. 

But as the world waits with bated breath, there are some fears we might never successfully develop a vaccine for coronavirus.

As Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, Assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases at Australian National University, told Mamamia’s news podcast The Quicky, we’ve never made a vaccine against coronaviruses for humans.

“We’ve come close with SARS, and the group in Oxford have also been developing a vaccine against MERS. I think that’s one reason [why] they have a lot of confidence that they will be able to get it right with the COVID-19 vaccine,” he explained.

However, Professor Jamie Triccas, Head of Discipline of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Sydney, says the reason progress on those two vaccines stalled was because they weren’t needed anymore.

“Attention went elsewhere and there weren’t funding streams available to push towards human trials. If you no longer have a disease which is circulating, interest in a vaccine reduces. I don’t think it was because it was impossible to make a vaccine it was just that priorities shifted,” he told Mamamia. 


Most experts, including the three Mamamia spoke to, remain confident that a COVID-19 vaccine will eventually be developed, in part because unlike previous diseases like HIV and malaria, the coronavirus does not mutate rapidly. There’s also evidence that those who are infected develop the sort of antibody response that protects against reinfection – which is a good sign for vaccine developers.

But Dr David Nabarro, a professor of global health at Imperial College London, told CNN, “We can’t make an absolute assumption that a vaccine will appear at all, or if it does appear, whether it will pass all the tests of efficacy and safety.”

New York Lab Tests Serum From Recovered COVID-19 Patients For Possible Therapy
Scientists in more than 40 labs are working on the coronavirus vaccine. Image: Misha Friedman/Getty.

In 1984 it was predicted that a preventative vaccine would be ready for testing in two years for HIV. Nearly four decades and 32 million deaths later, we still don't have one.

An effective vaccine for dengue fever has also eluded doctors for decades.

So what will life look like if - worst-case scenario - we don't find a vaccine?

Professor Triccas says we can look to places like Italy as examples of what our short term future might look like.

"We can already see there are countries that are starting to relax their rules around quarantine, while still having quite high rates of infection. I think the reality is we can't necessarily keep up that extreme isolation indefinitely because of the other impacts it has," he explained.

Triccas believes that even without a vaccine, Australians will eventually be allowed to gather at sporting events or at concerts and festivals, but it could, in fact, be the community that hesitates not authorities.

"We might just find they'll be typically lesser crowds because there isn't a vaccine... people's psychology will come into it. I think because there's been a lot of information out there, everyone's really informed and we might see a reluctance from people to congregate in large groups."

Personally, Triccas says he himself would consider going to the footy in a few months if the cases of infection reduce enough.


"I would look at where we are at with case rates, if it looks like we have a good handle on any cluster outbreaks and if our contact tracing is good - yes I would. But if you asked me and I was in a country that was still getting a couple of thousand cases a day, then I would probably say no. It's just a numbers game. You look at the situation and judge the risk."



Triccas is in the camp that believes a vaccine will eventually be developed. But even if we don't he says life (yes, including international travel) will most likely return to normal - we'll all just be better versed at hygiene and isolating ourselves when we're sick.

"For those of us who work in the area of infectious diseases, we know historically that disease outbreaks not so much come and go... but disease hits a population that's completely unprotected. You have these initial spikes, and then the outbreak wanes and you come down to a lower level. I think the perception that we're always going to have high rates of circulating coronavirus - that may not be the case. I think we'll get it down to a relatively low level once we've put all the practices in place," he told Mamamia.

School of Life and Environmental Sciences Associate Professor Timothy Newsome shares a similar sentiment, telling Mamamia: "Over many years, I am hopeful that COVID-19 will be relegated to more mild seasonal illness from its current pandemic status."

In the event that a vaccine is unobtainable, he says increased testing, contact tracing aided by smartphones (aka COVIDSafe), and identifying antiviral drugs and treatments that can alleviate the symptoms of COVID-19 cases will be the way forward for society.

Queenslanders Enjoy Outdoor Activities As Coronavirus Restrictions Are Eased
Queenslanders had their restrictions eased over the weekend, many gathering for picnics by the beach. Eventually, all of us will return to this way of life. Image: Chris Hyde/Getty.

While life without a COVID-19 vaccine is not the preferred option, both Newsome and Triccas are positive in their outlook for a world still living amongst the virus. They're even more positive about the potential for finding that all-important vaccine.

"We know a lot about viruses, and a lot about coronaviruses. So I don't think we're in a hopeless situation where we are coming across an enemy we can't defeat," Professor Triccas told Mamamia. "The level of involvement, interest, and funding has been enormous. So the resources are there [to find one]."


"I am optimistic that we will develop a vaccine. These are promising indications that a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is feasible," added Professor Newsome.

Dr Senanayake, however, isn't confident there will be a working vaccine by the end of the year despite all of the good signs

"I don't know if we're there yet. The Oxford trial group has talked about a vaccine potentially being ready by September. I really really hope that is the case... It would be absolutely phenomenal if it were. But if we put things in perspective the vaccine that's taken the shortest time to produce from start to finish was the Mumps vaccine which took about four years. So it would be an extraordinary feat to get a vaccine up and running and approved by the end of the year," he told The Quicky.

Feature image: Getty 

To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, remain in your home unless strictly necessary, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.