Image from fiercepharma.com
On March 11th, 2021, a year after the World Health Organization had officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic, one in ten Americans had been fully vaccinated. In the past, vaccine development has taken up to 10 to 15 years. The COVID-19 vaccine was developed and administered in less than one year. How was the vaccine developed so quickly?
The main reason is that the vaccine was designed based on decades of advanced research. For years, scientists have been studying similar coronaviruses, such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory System), and they were already familiar with the way the virus worked. The mRNA technology used in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine has been in the works for 10 to 15 years. As soon as the virus’ genome was known, that knowledge could be immediately applied to developing an mRNA-based vaccine.
Tests of safety and efficacy are often the slowest part of the vaccine development process. It requires three phases of clinical trials that involve an increasing number of participants and costs. Recruiting participants and raising money for testing can take vaccine developers years. However, the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic led to strong funding, and the massive number of infections greatly increased the speed of this process. Usually, each of the three phases of clinical testing happen one after the other, because vaccine developers do not want to spend money on testing if a vaccine is not successful in an early phase. However, for the COVID-19 vaccines, all three clinical phases happened simultaneously, because billions of dollars were invested in development efforts and a large number of participants were willing to participate in testing trials.
As with every other FDA-approved vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccines were tested with tens of thousands of participants before decisions were made regarding safety and effectiveness. All approved vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous standards for emergency authorization and are being continuously monitored as they are administered to the public. The efficiency of the COVID-19 vaccine development is the culmination of many prior accomplishments and a testament to science and collaboration.