Why Isn't There a Vaccine for the Common Cold?

Vaccines are an important public health strategy to better protect people from viruses like measles and influenza. Despite efforts to produce a vaccine for the common cold, no such product has yet been developed. 

Scientists have been trying to develop a cold vaccine without success since the 1950s. This is due in part to the fact that colds aren't caused by a single virus. However, new technologies may soon overcome this challenge and bring the promise of a cold vaccine closer to reality.

Tips to Prevent Spreading a Cold
Verywell / Kelly Miller

Viral Types and Strains

Vaccines target a specific disease-causing pathogen, such as a virus. One of the difficulties in developing a vaccine for the common cold is there are at least 200 different viruses that can cause cold symptoms, including adenoviruses, coronaviruses, parainfluenza, and rhinoviruses.

Rhinoviruses are to blame for up to 50% of all common colds. That seems like a big enough target to focus on. But of these rhinoviruses, there are more than 150 strains circulating at any one time.

Due to the limitations of current technologies, there is no way for one vaccine to protect against all possible types and strains of the viruses that cause the common cold.

Do We Need a Vaccine?

Millions of cases of the common cold are reported across the United States each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the average adult catches at least two colds every year and that children can get up to 10. 

On the upside, colds are self-limiting and will go away on their own, typically within a week. Although colds can be a nuisance, they generally don't cause serious problems for the majority of people. As such, the public demand for a cold vaccine may not be all that great even if one was developed.

Vaccine research is also costly and takes a long time, so the dollars and resources allocated to vaccine development are typically funneled to more serious diseases, such as COVID-19.

Given that there aren't many people who die or suffer inordinately from the common cold, allocating resources to a cold vaccine is arguably less of an imperative than creating ones that can prevent cancer, HIV, Ebola, or any number of other serious diseases.

Advances in Research

While a vaccine for the common cold is unlikely in the short term, scientists are exploring new technologies that attack the problem from different angles.

It is possible that new technologies will enable the creation of a single vaccine that will prevent many of the viruses that cause the common cold. The pneumonia vaccine, for example, contains 23 different bacterial strains. Researchers are trying to use similar technology to get 80 to 100 viral strains into a single common cold vaccine. 

Another potential approach involves molecular sequencing to identify parts of the viral structure that are common to the majority of strains. The theory is that inoculating a person with this common partial sequence may provide a high degree of protection. Much of the research is devoted to rhinoviruses of which 90% of strains use a specific receptor, called ICAM-1, to enter and infect cells.

In 2019, scientists with the University of California San Francisco identified a protein called SETD3 that blocked the replication of a broad spectrum of rhinoviruses in human cells and live mice. The discovery may one day usher in a cold vaccine or a broad-spectrum antiviral able to treat current infections.

More research is needed.

A Word From Verywell

While the world waits for a vaccine for the common cold, the best thing you can do is take standard precautions to keep yourself safe and as healthy as possible.

If you do get a cold, treat it appropriately and stay away from people—especially the elderly, infants, and people with severe asthma—who may not get over it as easily as you do.

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7 Sources
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