How were the vaccines developed so quickly?


By Julia Garaffa


The process of securing approval for a vaccine requires rigorous safety and efficacy testing. How were the COVID-19 vaccines able to move through this process quicker than previous vaccines?


A Scientific Headstart


To begin, much of the science needed to develop the vaccines had already been explored. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, scientists had been studying coronaviruses similar to the one that causes COVID-19 for decades. Building off of this past research, scientists quickly determined how the virus that causes COVID-19 affects the body and began creating vaccines to fight it. Had the pandemic been caused by a completely new type of virus, it would not have been possible to develop a vaccine as quickly [3,4].


Prior scientific research allowed vaccine creators a headstart when they began to design the vaccines. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which use a blueprint of a protein (called mRNA) to teach the body to defend itself against COVID-19. While the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the first mRNA vaccines to be approved, mRNA vaccine technology has been studied for over 20 years. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless virus different from the one that causes COVID-19 to teach the body to fight the virus. Viral vector vaccines like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been used since the 1970s [5].


Unprecedented Funding


COVID-19 vaccine development was accelerated by an unprecedented amount of funding. Usually, the tremendous cost of creating a vaccine slows the process down. To accelerate vaccine development, the federal government partnered with private manufacturers to take on the financial risk of creating the vaccine, which allowed manufacturers to devote all of their available resources to the project. This massive influx of funding allowed vaccine developers to take more financially risky paths to accelerate their vaccine’s development, without sacrificing safety [6].


Expedited Data Collection


The clinical trials were conducted in ways that cost more but saved time. One way clinical trials were expedited was to conduct Phase 1 and 2 or Phase 2 and 3 trials simultaneously. By conducting these trials at the same time, researchers were able to collect the same quality and level of data in a much shorter period of time.


Similarly, the process of recruiting willing participants for clinical trials can slow development, taking months or even years. One way researchers expedited this process was to split the Phase 3 trials into many smaller testing sites who could recruit a few hundred volunteers, rather than a few large locations that needed to recruit thousands of volunteers. It also helped that many people were eager to volunteer for the trials due to the urgency of the pandemic. Normally, having many small sites and parallel trials would be cost prohibitive for a manufacturer, but with the extra public funding it was possible to do so to accelerate the vaccine’s development [3,4].


The Best Results


Some people may fear that the FDA rushed to approve the vaccines out of desperation. However, for the 8 vaccines that are currently approved worldwide, there are 94 others that are still in clinical trials [7].These vaccines have been approved not because they were the only options, but because they showed the best results and proved to be safe.


If you need help finding where you can get vaccinated or have any other questions, the Addiction Policy Forum’s cost-free Vaccine Navigator Initiative can help. Go to https://www.addictionpolicy.org/navigator-request and fill out the form to get started.


References:

  1. FDA. (2020). Vaccine Development – 101. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/development-approval-process-cber/vaccine-development-101

  2. FDA. (2020). Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/vaccines/emergency-use-authorization-vaccines-explained

  3. Jocelyn Solis-Moreira. (2020). How did we develop a COVID-19 vaccine so quickly? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-did-we-develop-a-covid-19-vaccine-so-quickly#Safety-monitoring-after-vaccination

  4. Ball P.. (2020.) The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines — and what it means for other diseases. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03626-1

  5. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Different COVID-19 Vaccines. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines.html

  6. Leonhardt D. (2021). The Fast Path to a Vaccine. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/15/briefing/attorney-general-barr-sandra-lindsay-russia-hackers.html

  7. Zimmer C., Corum J., & Wee S.L. (2021). COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html

  8. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/safety-of-vaccines.html

  9. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). COVID-19 and People Who Use Drugs or Have Substance Use Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/other-at-risk-populations/people-who-use-drugs/QA.html