A vaccine for COVID-19 may not be developed any time in the near future. It could years in the making, says Dr. James Hildreth, a top immunologist in the U.S.
One lesson for COVID-19 from the AIDS crisis is the need “to quickly dispel any myths about the coronavirus so people would make the appropriate decisions,” said Hildreth, who is president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, one of the nation’s largest historically Black medical schools, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Hildreth said he is not optimistic about a coronavirus vaccine.
“You’d think after 39 years of being aware of HIV and studying it, we’d have a vaccine for that. But we don’t. That’s why I’m very cautious in telling people we will have a vaccine for COVID-19,” Hildreth said.
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A COVID-19 vaccine may not happen as quickly as people think, he added. “All the other major vaccines we have—for measles, Ebola—have taken a minimum of seven years, and some as long as 40 years.”
A Rhodes scholar, Hildreth earned his Ph.D. in immunology. As a researcher and physician, he worked to bring better medical care to the fight against AIDS, particularly for African Americans.
A growing number of hospitals are investigating antibody testing and blood plasma therapy as a way to combat the new coronavirus in sick patients, WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez wrote.
There are several risk factors of the disease that have changed the efforts to mitigate COVID-19, Hildreth said.
After two months of data, we learned from China that if you had diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or you smoked, or were elderly with underlying conditions, your likelihood of getting severe disease and dying was much higher.
“In the U.S., it’s well established that if you’re from a minority group or you’re poor, you’re more likely to have those conditions and therefore more likely to have poorer outcomes,” Hildreth said.
“Knowing that, we should have been aggressively proactive in testing around the most vulnerable populations,” he said. “Think about nursing homes. People are being ravaged. With an appropriate national strategy, we could have made sure resources were in place to protect those most vulnerable.”
Hildreth discussed why African Americans are being infected and dying from the coronavirus at higher rates.
“Brown and Black folks tend to live in intergenerational households,” he said. “So young people get infected, they seem to be OK, but grandparents in that household won’t be as lucky.
“You also have the fact that minorities tend to work in jobs where they interact closely with others, checking them out at a store, driving a bus, working in a factory. The kinds of jobs they do and the living settings make it more likely the virus will spread quickly through those communities.”
Add to that asthma, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions.
“It’s a correlation of factors that will make for devastation,” Hildreth said. “That would also be true for some white communities where there’s poverty and people living in similar settings.”
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Despite being skeptical about a vaccine anytime soon, Hildreth, 63, is working on a solution with collaborators in Brazil.
They have an idea for a drug they think might work against COVID-19, he said.
“I devote about two hours a day, right before I go to bed, to reading primary literature, helping to design the experiments and making sure we can cut through compliance issues so we can move forward,” he said. “I’m excited that all over the world scientists are collaborating in a way that’s seldom seen. Within a year, we may not have a vaccine, but we probably will have identified a drug candidate that might at least stem the tide.”
The lead coronavirus researcher at the National Institue of Health, immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, recently came under fire for suggesting on social media that the pandemic could be genocide against Black people.