Vaccines generally take five to ten years to develop. The fastest vaccine, the mumps vaccine, took four years to develop—from 1967 to 1971 (1). However, the FDA authorized the emergency use and distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine on December 11, 2020. This time, researchers and pharmaceutical companies developed the vaccine in about 11 months. A week later, the FDA also authorized the use of Moderna’s vaccine. How did we develop vaccines at such a record-shattering speed?
This question has led to some public apprehension; a survey of citizens in 19 countries found that only 71.5% of respondents were willing to take the vaccine (2). The rapid development process does warrant concern: vaccine development is a complicated process (see Vying for a Vaccine). Furthermore, an authorized vaccine intuitively suggests that we are approaching the end of the pandemic. Yet, President-elect Joe Biden––on December 22––warned Americans that the “darkest day in the battle against COVID is ahead of us, not behind us” (3). A vaccine is a crucial step in combating the coronavirus: not because it will surely bring immunity, but because it shows that we still lack the knowledge to end the pandemic.
Although researchers and scientists technically developed the vaccine in 11 months, they have essentially been developing the vaccine even before the coronavirus outbreak even started. According to Dr. Fauci, “the speed [of development] is a reflection of years of work that went before. That’s what the public has to understand.” (4) Facui is right: the public should understand that decades of research that preceded the pandemic has given scientists a better understanding of viruses and jump-started the development process. Years of research has also led to a difference in how we make vaccines.
Researchers traditionally make vaccines by using the actual virus to stimulate immune responses, but the COVID-19 vaccine uses messenger RNA in the virus to produce a protein that stimulates an immune response (see What the COVID-19 Vaccine Will Look Like). In addition to having more efficiency, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were 95% effective in clinical trials, and there were no trends of severe side effects among trial patients. However, there was some anecdotal evidence of patients experiencing adverse effects in late-stage trials (see COVID-19 Vaccine Trials).
While the vaccine does have strong components, it does highlight the ambiguity surrounding the virus. Researchers developed the vaccine despite there being questions such as how long do antibodies provide an immune response against COVID-19 (see Immune System Superfighters); in other words, after one gets the coronavirus, how long does he/she retain immunity? This idea has also shown up in the vaccine, as it is not clear how long vaccinated people have immunity to the coronavirus.
The distribution of the vaccine also mirrors a problem that we encountered at the start of the pandemic. At first, the government needed to decide who received access to hospital beds, ventilators, and tests. Now, the government needs to prioritize who gets vaccinated. Similar to previous challenges in the pandemic, the economics of vaccine distribution has raised concern. The coronavirus vaccine requires two doses, and several health experts have suggested delaying the distribution of the second dose to allow more patients to receive the first one. Such a convoluted process has only become more complicated as anti-vaxxers, many of which disregard scientific evidence, parrot calls of safety concerns.
That said, however, this issue of CHASM celebrates the unparalleled advancements in vaccine development and marks the culmination of a tumultuous year. We believe distributing the vaccine, in conjunction with other safety protocols, such as social distancing and wearing masks, is a right step toward curbing the pandemic. We hope you enjoy the article on the CEO of Novavax—although not the leader of the race, the company has recently made uplifting progress in their vaccine development, starting Phase 3 clinical trials. We also invite you to read uplifting articles about helium huffing alligators and Elon Musk; we will be adding a section to report on the Nobel Prize winners annually. On that note, we hope that continued efforts to ensure human safety will lead to stronger multilateral cooperation between countries. Stay tuned for more!
– Andrew Zhao & Gerson Personnat
- Cohen, S. (2020, December 10). The fastest vaccine in history. UCLA Health. https://connect.uclahealth.org/2020/12/10/the-fastest-vaccine-in-history/.
- Lazarus, J. (2020, October 2020). A global survey of potential acceptance of COVID-19 vaccine. Nature Medicine. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-1124-9.
- Reuters Staff. (2020, December 22). Biden will seek a new COVID-19 relief package next year, ‘darkest days’ are ahead. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-congress-biden/biden-will-seek-new-covid-19-relief-package-next-year-darkest-days-are-ahead-idUSKBN28W2I0.
- Neergaard, Lauran. (2020, December 7). Years of research laid groundwork for speedy COVID-19 shots. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/years-research-groundwork-covid-19-shots-f204192f07cfcc3503dc9c7687ae6269.