There is no question that scientists across the world managed to achieve what seemed like the impossible: in the face of a global pandemic they delivered several effective vaccinations by 2021. According to Nature, ‘the fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s. To hope for one even by the summer of 2021 seemed highly optimistic.’ Vaccinations normally take years of research, trials and development before they are approved and rolled out, some scientists even suggested an average of 10 years. This can be concerning for many people who may be unsure as to whether the vaccine is safe. However, the vaccines have gone through the same rigorous testing processes, just eliminated the time taken ‘waiting’ in between the trials which streamlined and sped up the whole process. There have also been a number of other contributing factors that allowed scientists to develop a vaccination in record time. Here are some:
The research that helped develop the COVID-19 vaccination had already been started years before, on related coronaviruses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).
Further the mRNA vaccine platform, which is the basis for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, began research and development over two decades ago. Speaking in Nature, immunologist Akiko Iwasaki at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who has worked on these types of vaccines (nucleic-acid vaccines which are based on DNA or RNA) for over twenty years said: ‘“A lot went into the mRNA platform that we have today,” … The basic research on DNA vaccines began at least 25 years ago, and RNA vaccines have benefited from 10–15 years of strong research, she says, some aimed at developing cancer vaccines. The approach has matured just at the right time; five years ago, the RNA technology would not have been ready.’
Advanced research in areas such as RNA technology and coronaviruses therefore gave teams a head start on the COVID-19 vaccination when the pandemic emerged.
Normally, when developing a vaccination, teams would have to apply for grant money to develop said vaccine. This would naturally take time, persuading funding agencies, advisors, company directors and so forth to invest in the product, often against other competitors. However, as the pandemic was so severe and the demand for a vaccine was of the utmost priority, funding was granted from private and public sectors almost immediately to the most promising candidates, allowing research and development to race forward. The billions that was poured into vaccination development, essentially cleared many of the roadblocks for developers, they could take financial risks and even run some tests at the same time. Companies could take risks and start manufacturing or testing processes earlier, even at the risk that the vaccine would not make it that far.
Arguably, the pandemic itself also helped scientists move forward with a vaccination quickly and not only as a prompt for funding. For example, vaccination trials need to demonstrate that the vaccinations work, via efficacy trials. Meaning that a certain number of people would need to be exposed to and catch the disease for researchers to determine a vaccination’s effectiveness. It therefore helped that the vaccination was being developed at a time where the disease was so prevalent, as if it had not been, efficacy trials would have been harder to run. Massive trials were therefore able to take place easily and effectively.
Via an early COVID case, Professor Yong-Zhen Zhang at Fudan University, Shanghai, and colleagues in China very quickly identified the genetic sequence of the RNA in the virus and made this information public. This allowed vaccine production to get underway very fast.
New platforms for vaccine development were able to use this genetic sequence, rather than a sample of the actual virus, to begin designing and generating a vaccination. The Guardian wrote: ‘several companies and academic institutions, notably including BioNTech, Moderna and the University of Oxford, had also been working on new technologies capable of generating vaccines from the genetic codes of infectious pathogens and cancers, and testing them for several years.’ Although these approaches are said to be revolutionizing vaccine production and are considered new, as stated above, some of these vaccine platforms such as RNA have been in development for over two decades.
The fast development of the COVID-19 vaccination may mark an acceleration for vaccine development for future threats. Speaking to Nature, Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, said: ‘“It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources,” he says. New ways of making vaccines, such as by using messenger RNA (mRNA), have been validated by the COVID-19 response, he adds. “It has shown that the development process can be accelerated substantially without compromising on safety.”