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How Were we Able to Develop a COVID Vaccine so Quickly?

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The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines is unprecedented.  The previous record was 4 years for the mumps vaccine and, overall, vaccines have taken 10-15 years to develop.  This might concern some, who wonder how this vaccine was produced in such a short amount of time.  Understanding how can help ease COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy by demystifying the differences between developing this and previous vaccines.

  1. Tremendous resources were brought to bear.  The scale of this pandemic required an overwhelming response: governments directed billions of dollars and collaborated with pharmaceutical companies to develop dozens of vaccine candidates around the world.  Federal review of safety data occurred on a rolling basis rather than all at the end, and federal response prioritized the vaccine approval process over all else.     
  2. Clinical trials were accelerated.  Volunteers filled up clinical trials very quickly, unlike previous vaccine trials which could take years to enroll enough people.  Multiple phases could be combined and some run simultaneously, instead of waiting for each phase to finish before beginning the next.  And because the virus spread like wildfire, efficacy could be proved in a few months, rather than taking years as it does with less common infections.  It was this combination, and not risky shortcuts, that sped clinical trials along. 
  3. Previous research and existing technology meant scientists weren’t  starting from scratch.  Before SARS-CoV-2, there was SARS-CoV-1 (SARS) and MERS, and the University of Oxford had already begun work on a SARS vaccine until it was shelved once that infection burned out and investment dried up.  Then Ebola came along and showed the world it was clearly unprepared for a global pandemic, and CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation) was formed, a partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil society organizations that works to accelerate vaccine development for emerging infectious diseases.  Additionally, decades of research built the technologies behind both the mRNA and vector vaccines (Moderna has been working exclusively on mRNA for years).
  4. Hard work and good luck.  Researchers across the world have been working around the clock on every aspect of vaccine development.  The enormity of their effort and expertise are humbling.  And luck played a role: the vaccines are amazingly effective and have very few side effects, aside from a handful of allergic reactions requiring EpiPens.


Sky Pittson, MD,  March 31, 2021