Widespread vaccination for the coronavirus disease is expected to start by the middle of 2021, World Health Organization chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has said, though expressing cautious optimism on the research and development process.

“We have now over 20 candidates in clinical studies. So we are hopeful that a couple of them will work. It would be very unlucky if all of them fail,” she said in an interview. “So if we are very practical, then we are looking at the middle of 2021 when we will have a vaccine that can be widely deployed. Of course, it’s impossible to predict.”

There are several global efforts focused on the development of potential vaccines for the coronavirus disease. About 150 vaccines for COVID-19 are under development across the world, according to WHO, with reports of rapid progress in a number of them.

The first two candidates to reach phase three trials were from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, and the other from China, both of which appear safe and produce immune responses. A vaccine from American biotech firm Moderna is also heading into phase three trials after similarly encouraging initial results, reports say.

There are at least 16 other vaccines currently in clinical trials in Australia, France, Germany, India, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and China, which has been experimenting with a variety of vaccine types and has five candidates already in trials.

Swaminath noted that the global race to develop a vaccine had been the fastest timeline ever seen as there were only 3 months between the time the virus’s genetic sequence was published in January and the time the first trial began.

The novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China late last year but has since spread to almost every nook and cranny in the world, with more than 14 million people infected and over 600,000 casualties.

The pandemic’s epicenter has since shifted from China to Europe and right now to the Americas. India on Friday became the third country globally to record over 1 million cases of the new coronavirus, only behind the United States and Brazil.

After a relatively slow spread in Africa, cases in the region have soared to more than 720,000 with over 15,000 deaths, according to data available on the Africa CDC website. South Africa leads the continent with over 374,000 infections. Earlier this month, the African Union Commission launched a consortium for COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.

Some places where the virus had been brought under control are now seeing an uptick in cases, sparking fears of a second wave of infections, and leading to renewed lockdowns and tough restrictions on public life and travel.

A resurgence of the coronavirus disease is very likely, particularly from countries that have eased lockdown and restrictions, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned, adding that too many countries were headed in the wrong direction which could worsen the pandemic.

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