PROVIDENCE — The creation of a COVID-19 vaccine could be the return to normalcy that Rhode Islanders, and, frankly, everyone across the country and world, have been pining for since the virus became a pandemic earlier this year. But according to Dr. Erica Hardy, the Director of Infectious Disease at Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, a vaccine could be as far as 18 months away.

But Hardy, a Pawtucket native, shared a sense of cautious optimism on Tuesday afternoon at the news out of Cambridge, Mass. that an experimental vaccine against the coronavirus showed encouraging results in early testing, triggering immune responses in eight healthy, middle-aged volunteers.

Study volunteers given either a low or medium dose of the vaccine by Moderna Inc. had antibodies similar to those seen in people who have recovered from COVID-19, the Associated Press reported.

Hardy on Tuesday said her reaction to the news was that of cautious optimism, saying “this is very early data, but from what the company released – showing this was safe in a very small number of human subjects – that is potentially good news.”

However, Hardy was quick to note that vaccine studies must endure a number of rigorous phases and Moderna’s experimental vaccine candidate is still “quite early” in the process.

In the next phase of the study, led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, researchers will try to determine which dose is best for a definitive experiment that they aim to start in July, the AP reported. In all, 45 people have received one or two shots of the vaccine, which was being tested at three different doses. The kind of detailed antibody results needed to assess responses are only available on eight volunteers so far.

The following phases, according to Hardy, will be to expand the vaccine candidate to larger groups of people, and that will continue into latter stages, which will include “many, many more people, thousands of people,” all while the potential vaccine is tested for safety as well. Safety, perhaps, is one of the key drivers behind why it may take up to 18 months for a vaccine to be publicly available, as Hardy explained “there’s just no shortcuts with vaccine developments.”

“Even if something like this were to come to market, it would have to go through all the safety checkpoints before it would have to move forward,” she explained. “There’s no shortcuts … It does have to go through all those checkpoints.”

Globally, about a dozen vaccine candidates are in the first stages of testing or nearing it, according to the AP. Health officials have said that if all goes well, studies of a potential vaccine might wrap up by late this year or early next year.

With COVID-19’s grip on the world taking hold earlier this year, Hardy noted that the medical community has an all-hands-on-deck approach in combating the virus, with a universal approach to finding a cure as soon as possible.

“I think even just the number of vaccine candidates that are out there, the number of resources allocated to trying to get a vaccine out of this pandemic, I think it’s moving very quickly…” Hardy said. “It speaks to how much is into this as a possible end. A lot of resources are into vaccine studies, that piece is good news.”

However, she still said the “optimistic timeline” for a publicly-available vaccine for COVID-19 is about 18 months, saying “I don’t think it would be faster than that, but we’ll see.”

“I think we’re all hoping for a vaccine that would get us out of this pandemic that can be used in everybody, I think we’re all really hoping for that,” she later said. “A lot of illnesses like this, we haven’t seen anything like this, this devastating illness … I think we’re all hoping for a vaccine for COVID.”

Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette

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