How COVID helped launch a vaccine revolution

24 June 2021

8 minute read

When China first reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan in December 2019, the world didn’t seem particularly worried.

Little was known then about this mysterious virus. But soon China was reporting over 1,000 deaths, and the disease had quickly taken hold in other countries. By late February 2020, harrowing reports were coming out of hospitals in northern Italy, the new epicentre, of patients struggling to survive as coronavirus ravaged cities in the region.

Thankfully, many scientists were quick to realise the enormity of the situation. On hearing the initial reports out of Wuhan, they quickly began working on vaccines to try to tame the virus that has now killed more than 3.5 million people worldwide1.

And it’s this vaccine ‘race’, with hundreds of COVID-19 drugs in development, that has changed the face of vaccine development forever.

Historically, a typical timeline for vaccine development was between 10 to 15 years2. Yet incredibly, less than a year after the world was brought to a standstill by COVID-19, highly effective vaccination programmes had already been rolled out globally, marking the world’s fastest ever vaccine development in history.

In the early days of the pandemic, the New York Times estimated that it would take 11 years to develop, test and manufacture a viable vaccine3. While Pfizer researchers predicted that a vaccine may be ready for first approvals in the latter half of 20214.

These estimates may seem foreboding in hindsight, but both forecasts were actually quite optimistic – considering the time it’s taken for vaccines to come to market previously.

It illustrates how far we’ve come in such a short time, but it’s important to understand where we’ve been.

The traditional vaccine process

All potential COVID-19 vaccines have followed the traditional vaccine process – going through the same stages of development before gaining approval.

Historically, even the initial exploratory research phase and pre-clinical trials, where vaccines are trialled in the lab and with animals, took many years to complete. Only then, if a vaccine showed promise, would it be trialled on adults to work out if it was safe and effective. Again, this could take many years.

The final hurdle a vaccine faces is the regulator. They will scrutinise the trial results before the vaccine can gain approval to be manufactured and distributed for widespread use.

Of course, as we now know, each leg of this journey has been refined in record time – without cutting corners – in a lightning-fast quest to save lives.

Developing vaccines at pandemic speed

Previously, it took 28 years to develop a chicken pox vaccine5, six years to just isolate and test the very first polio vaccine5 and five years for the Ebola vaccine to be approved6. The vaccine for mumps became medical textbook legend in 1967 when it was authorised for use in just four years7.

However, the significant advances in vaccinology that have been achieved in the last year eclipse this milestone. A lot is also down to medical innovation and technological advances of recent years that have allowed scientists to speed up their processes.

Just 10 days after the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China had reported the initial cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin, the cause had been identified as a novel coronavirus. This later became known as COVID-19 and on 11 January 2020 the genetic sequence was uploaded to a publically available online source.

Using only this sequence, pharmaceuticals, biotech firms, researchers and academics all over the world were able to start designing and manufacturing clinical-grade vaccines at record speed. Thanks to advances in genomic sequencing technology, the digital copy of the virus had arrived in labs all over the world before the physical coronavirus had reached western shores. This is a remarkable development.

The arrival of the next generation of vaccines

Also, mRNA vaccines, which before COVID-19 had never been approved for use against any disease, opens up another exciting strand in vaccinology.

Most traditional vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. With mRNA, they instead teach cells to make a protein that then triggers the body’s immune response.

The first vaccine to pass all safety checks and be approved to tackle COVID-19 was an mRNA vaccine – the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. Another mRNA candidate, Moderna, quickly followed. They now make up a quarter of all COVID-19 vaccines so far approved for full use across the globe8.

AI and machine learning

AI has also been critical to the development of the new vaccines. Analysing the genomic sequencing data using machine learning, researchers can monitor how the virus mutates, identifying regions of the virus that are less prone to variation. On the surface of a virus, there are tens of thousands of subcomponents that the immune system can target.

Machine learning systems analysed the sequence of COVID-19, sorting through thousands of components to predict and identify those most likely to trigger a robust immune response. AI has also been used to predict the shape of the virus, giving valuable insight into how best to fight it. It’s also facilitated simultaneous clinical studies worldwide, significantly speeding up the vaccine development process.

Within hours of the genetic sequence of SARS-Cov-2 becoming public, researchers had pinpointed optimised targets. BioNTech’s chief executive Ugur Sahin created 10 vaccine candidates on his home computer in Germany – before the illness was even seen in the country – simply by plugging the genetic sequence in to the company’s software9.

Likewise, Moderna had designed the entire chemical structure of their vaccine candidate in just 48 hours10. This was then injected into a patient’s arm as part of clinical testing just two months later, and is the exact same vaccine that was later approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. The fact that neither BioNTech nor Moderna ever needed to see a physical copy of the virus for this to happen represents the momentous power of mRNA technology.

Looking forward to a healthier future

As we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll look back at the tremendous innovation borne out of the crisis. With mRNA technology by our side, producing vaccines in the future is expected to be far easier.

Preliminary research indicates that future novel virus outbreaks could be tackled by simply swapping out genetic material from different viruses into the same vaccine design11. In fact, mRNA technology is likely to become a cornerstone in medicine and public health that goes far beyond the current pandemic.

The technology can not only be used to respond to other infectious diseases, but could also provide treatments for conditions such as heart disease, cancer and other rare medical conditions that were previously too costly to invest in.

So while the pandemic will surely come to an end, it’s legacy will be long-lasting. And if we can harness the incredible innovations that have come out of the COVID-19 crisis, it is within our reach to keep the next pandemic so contained that future generations won’t even know its name.

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