ICW Healthcare Ventures

Tortoises, hares, and vaccines: A cautionary note for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development

In the Aesop fable, “The Hare and the Tortoise,” the tortoise unexpectedly beats the hare in a race. The moral of the story is that the race is not always to the swift. This same moral also appears in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes 9:11, which more generally concerns the limitations of human wisdom—which is nearly always disregarded by humans themselves.

In late December 2019, the world was notified of an unusual cluster of severe respiratory disease occurring in Wuhan, China. Very soon thereafter, the causative agent was identified as the now-named SARS-CoV-2 virus—a betacoronavirus that had crossed the species barrier to infect humans. In the last few months, this virus has circulated worldwide and caused over 3 million identified cases and 200,000 deaths as of this writing, and those numbers are certainly an under-estimate.


Almost immediately, the call went forth that a vaccine was needed. I agree and so does every serious scientist knowledgeable about the issue. There is no question that a vaccine against this virus, and other as-yet-to-come coronaviruses, is imperative to protect human health and to quickly respond to future viral introductions, epidemics, and pandemics. But, alarmingly, scientists began to speak of the promise of a vaccine being available in “months”—promises that began to circulate in the media almost as quickly as the virus.