ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- The Mayo Clinic in Rochester is one of many places where research for a COVID-19 vaccine is being done.
While the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a new one, it's not the first coronavirus humans have encountered. Using vaccines for two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, researchers had a place to start when it came to developing a COVID-19 vaccine. However, they were still in uncharted territory.
"It's like stepping in a minefield here. You don't know if what you've learned for a prior pathogen is going to work. There's a lot of trial and error and testing," said Dr. Richard Kennedy, Mayo Clinic researcher.
Even once the vaccine goes from the lab to animal trials, to trials in humans, there are still three phases of clinical studies before the vaccine can be administered.
Developing a vaccine starts with researching what the virus does to the body and how the immune system responds to it.
"The immune system can do any of a number of things," Kennedy said. "Some of them may cause harm like we're seeing with the cytokine storm. Some of them may actually protect us. We've heard a lot about neutralizing antibodies."
Yet many people still have questions about how the vaccine works.
"The ultimate goal of any vaccine is to help your immune system create T cells and B cells that can attack the virus or virus-infected cells," Kennedy said.
It involves getting a viral protein into your body which is what the vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna do. However, these are new vaccines, which is cause for concern.
"Vaccines aren't perfect. They do have side effects," Kennedy said. "Those side effects are minimal and rare compared to the harm that can come from the disease."
Along with the new coronavirus vaccine, Mayo is researching other pathogens and developing vaccines to fight them.
"You have to do something else in the meantime but then as soon as you get the answer and are ready to take the next step, you have to jump on that next step immediately," Kennedy said. "Flexibility as well as hard work and long hours all come into play."
Whether its influenza or the new coronavirus, viruses can mutate. Dr. Kennedy says this is why a new flu shot is needed every year.
While the coronavirus mutates slower than the flu, Kennedy is unsure how often a new vaccine will need to be developed.
He also reminds the public that even after any vaccine is approved, clinical trials continue in order to study its effects on the immune system and improve the vaccine.