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How Were the Covid-19 Vaccines Developed So Quickly?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2021

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, among those people who said they probably or definitely won’t get a Covid-19 vaccine, the top two reasons given were “concern about side effects” and “the vaccines were developed and tested too quickly”. For our purposes here, I’m going to ignore the first concern — the data is pretty conclusive that, on average, the vaccine side effects are minimal when compared to the effects of actually contracting Covid-19 — and focus on the quick development timeline. If you’re among those who are apprehensive about the unprecedented speed at which the world’s governments and scientific community mobilized to create several effective Covid-19 vaccines, I hope the following will help you make a good decision.

In reading a bunch of different resources (linked below throughout), I identified six main reasons why the Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly compared to past efforts.

1. The need was urgent. Covid-19 changed the entire world in a very short span of time and it was evident in the absence of an effective vaccine, tens of millions more people would unnecessarily die and/or suffer and the rest of us would be living in fear of disease and death. This urgency drove several of the other factors here: the availability of funding, resources, and collaboration.

2. Funding & focus. Companies and governments threw billions and billions of dollars at this. Companies, research centers, and scientists dropped other stuff they were working on to study SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19. Governments prioritized regulatory approval for trials, etc. From a thread by Dr. Kat Arney:

Relatively few in the scientific, pharma & policy worlds care about vaccines compared w/ drugs. Most vaccine programmes are underfunded as they’re perceived as not profitable, only relevant to LMICs, & have few research groups/companies working on them. Getting funding & research capacity for vax usually takes months/years. COVID-19 vaccine was a massive global research effort w/ $millions for multiple groups/projects in weeks. Years of funding cycles & lab research happened in months, huge amount of time saved.

And from a presentation given by Dr. Anthony Fauci:

We proceeded at risk. So people say, what do you mean by “at risk”? Are you risking safety? Are you risking scientific integrity? No, it’s a financial risk. In other words, you invest in things that cost a lot of money before you even have an answer to whether the prior step worked.

And a classic example is the production of large scale amounts of clinical lots, which have been produced and are being produced before you even know that your vaccine works, so that you have hundreds of millions of doses ready to go. If the vaccine works, you’ve saved many months. If the vaccine doesn’t, you lost a lot of money, to the tune of hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. But it was felt it was worth that investment and that risk financially in order to save time.

More on that here. As Dr. Faheem Younus put it, “We didn’t cut corners; we cut the crap!”

3. Availability of volunteers & high incidence of disease. In order to statistically show the vaccine works, you need people to test it on and you need enough people in the studies to get sick. Kat Arney again:

To show vax effectiveness, you need a high number of people with the disease in the population — big problem with the Ebola vax is that it took so long to develop the outbreak was over & the couldn’t get enough numbers to conclusively show it worked

We’re in a global pandemic — the vaccine is being tested in places with very high community prevalence, so trials can hit pre-determined statistical milestones very quickly. Huge amount of time saved.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world volunteered to test these vaccines — without them, we’d be months and years away from a safe, tested vaccine.

4. International & corporate collaboration. Countries and companies shared research, data, and resources because the primary goal was to develop effective vaccines and save lives, not make a profit. For instance, Chinese researchers posted the genome for SARS-CoV-2 on January 11, 2020, allowing the effort to develop a vaccine to begin.

5. We knew a lot about coronaviruses from previous work. This wasn’t an effort that started from scratch. From Bloomberg:

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may seem brand new, but they are the culmination of more than a decade of work that started during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Vaccines were even developed against MERS but were never needed. Nevertheless, scientists learned a huge amount from working with that virus, which is from the same family as the one that causes Covid-19.

From Dr. Habibul Ahsan:

Really, most of the vaccine platform development work is already done. You just have to do the remaining part, which is adding the right viral antigens to the already-proven platform and making sure it’s safe and effective in humans. Even in just the last five to 10 years, we’ve made big leaps in developing new kinds of vaccine platforms like those being tested for SARS-CoV-2.

6. Scientific and technological capability. Ok, we know a lot about coronaviruses but humanity’s general scientific and technological abilities have never been stronger or more powerful. Again from Bloomberg:

Remember also that technology has evolved rapidly — for example, we’re now about able to sequence the genomes of every mutant version of the virus in less than a day. That helps in speeding up vaccine development.

Dr. Mark Toshner sums up the effort:

However we have collectively now shown that with money no object, some clever and highly motivated people, an unlimited pool of altruistic volunteers, and sensible regulators that we can do amazing things.

Further reading: The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines — and what it means for other diseases (Nature), How were researchers able to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly? (Univ. of Chicago), The race for the COVID-19 vaccine: A story of innovation and collaboration (Carnall Farrar), COVID-19 vaccines: development, evaluation, approval and monitoring (European Medicines Agency).