+ The lightning speed of COVID vaccine development - CII Blog

Vaccine development, before COVID-19, took years or decades. A look at the brief history of vaccine development[1] shows how far we have come.

*Rotavirus- 1998-99 was withdrawn & 2nd generation relaunched- 2006 & 2008

Since the advent of COVID-19, it did not take even a year to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine to get emergency approval from the World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December 2020.

What used to be a long-drawn process has seen a sudden shift since the pandemic. But was it sudden, or was it years in making? Let’s find out.

Origin

Although SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus, its genetic structure is very similar to the SARS-CoV (2003) and MERS-CoV (2012) coronaviruses. Therefore, the scientific community had leverage against COVID-19 in terms of genetic sequencing to develop a vaccine.

By the end of January 2020, scientists came out with the complete genome sequencing of the virus.

The scientific community, back in 2003, was trying to come up with a vaccine for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). They were close to devising one, but before they could go for human trials, the SARS virus mysteriously (literally) disappeared. With no reported cases, the funding to move on with the research dried up across the globe. However, it also gave us an edge, as we were well-versed with the vaccine strategies. For example, experts, in the case of developing the SARS vaccine, were working on specific proteins constituting the virus to target the spikes glycoprotein of the virus. Almost the same technology is now being used in COVID-19 vaccines.

Testing

Any vaccine is as good as its chance of clearing the human trial stage. Earlier, there was an enormous hesitancy for volunteering for any vaccine. It’s still present, but the global impact of COVID-19 gave courage to people to volunteer for human trials across the world.

The sheer number of people for vaccine trials has been unprecedented. It has helped the scientific community to rapidly accelerate the vaccine development process. In the United States of America, as early as July 2020, 138,600 Americans volunteered to participate in clinical trials.

Human trials are important as it is after the trials, the effectiveness of any vaccine can be determined. It is only after phase 3 trials (vaccine given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety), a vaccine gets approval for mass usage.

Technology

Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are developed on four platforms. Namely,

  • Whole virus vaccine- Weakened or inactivated virus injected (Covaxin, Sinopharm, Sinovac)
  • Viral vector vaccine- Genetic engineering of other virus to produce coronavirus proteins in the body (Covishield, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sputnik V)
  • Nucleic acid vaccine- DNA or messenger RNA (mRNA) inserted into human cells to produce immune response (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D)
  • Protein based vaccine- Virus spike protein is injected (Novavax, Biological E, Sanofi-GSK)

Out of all these platforms, mRNA vaccines have been licensed for the first time for human usage. However, the mRNA vaccine was in the development process for years. The other platforms are well-established ones. For example, whole virus vaccine technology is used to make vaccines for hepatitis A, polio, and rabies.

Financial Support

“The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”

This quote is from a 2007 research paper by Vincent C C Cheng, Susanna K P Lau, Patrick C Y Woo, Kwok Yung Yuen on ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,’ can be considered as a scientific premonition. They were not the only ones to warn the world of possible pandemics in the future, arising due to an imbalanced ecological structure due to increasing human interventions in nature. Yet, it’s a known fact that the scientific grants, financial support to study these viruses were either stopped or reduced significantly.

However, considering the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial support to develop a vaccine has been huge. European Union spent €469 million on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly, the USA spent around $40 billion for the same.

Countries, across the globe, have been collaborative and are providing necessary monetary and statutory support to their scientific communities to speed up the process.

The scientific development that we made since the COVID-19 outbreak has never been seen before in human history. It could be attributed to the collective cognitive ability of humans that we stand a chance to defeat this virus. It can be hoped that we only move forward from here.


[1] The vaccine in the list may have been discontinued, relaunched, or new versions could have been introduced