As the number of people who receive vaccinations continues to skyrocket, we thought we’d take a moment to appreciate the work of this miraculous medicine. After all, there’s never been a vaccine that has developed this quickly – they usually take 10-15 years. This is great news for the general population, since the United States is sitting at about 30 million infections from coronavirus, and almost 120 million globally. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to look back on the impressive development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
First Confirmed COVID-19 Cases
On the last day of 2019, China reported an odd cluster of pneumonia cases among a group of people associated with the Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. By January 9, 2020, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had identified that this was the first confirmed breakout of a new virus, 2019-nCoV, more commonly known as COVID-19 or coronavirus. Although there hundreds of coronaviruses have been identified, with some of them completely harmless, COVID-19 virus was especially scary because of the ease of person-to-person transmission. Since it wasn’t contained in Wuhan, even with the seafood market shut down, it spread throughout the world rapidly. By the end of the month, it had reached more than 20 countries, including the U.S., with almost 10,000 confirmed cases.
What Is Sars CoV-2
COVID-19 is a disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a member of the coronavirus family. The virus can affect the respiratory system, both upper and lower, and spreads mainly through person-to-person contact. Other common illnesses, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), are also coronaviruses. Thanks to the work that started with these two diseases in the past 20 years, the foundation was in place to craft an effective COVID-19 vaccine based on those developed for SARS and MERS.
Developing a Vaccine: Global Cooperation
The COVID vaccine development was truly a global effort. Just a few days after the confirmation of a coronavirus breakout in Wuhan, its genome was sequenced and made publicly available. This allowed scientists to access necessary information and fast-track testing. Two of the leading scientists were infection disease experts Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci. They have spent years in the cancer and oncology fields, pioneering immunotherapy treatments for some of the world’s most deadly diseases. But, with the sharing of their groundbreaking research around the modification of human genetic code, they were the minds behind the most effective coronavirus vaccine, and newest medicinal technology, which we’ll discuss later. On 11 March 2020, the director general of the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, marking a dark milestone in the COVID-19 era. With an alarming rise in infections, mounting death toll and strict quarantine guidelines in place, civilization was experiencing a plague like it had never seen before.
Government Funding for the Vaccine
The cost of vaccine development generally costs anywhere from $200 million to $500 million – in other words, there may not be much of an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to take such a large financial risk on new, unproven medicine to treat a novel coronavirus. In order to help, governments around the world put together funding to expedite the development of candidate vaccines. For example, the United States implemented Operation Warp Speed (OWS). This connected several organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who were tasked with developing 300 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by early 2021. The United Kingdom was also a major player when it came to funding private medical research, with their Vaccine Taskforce. Thanks to this program, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine came to fruition, and was the first to publish their trials for peer review. In addition, the European Commission also contributed almost $10 billion for relevant research. By investing in many companies and organizations willing to help with vaccine development, many of the world’s largest governments were able to increase the chances of supplying enough doses to defeat the virus.
In partnership with BioNTech, the creators of RNA technology, Pfizer was the first company to start clinical trials on their COVID vaccine. Financed by the German government and private capital, they began testing in April of 2020. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have shown high efficacy rates of 94 and 95 percent, respectively.
Moderna was largely financed by the United States’ Operation Warp Speed (OWS). Using similar technology to Pfizer, the company was able to fulfill the advancement of their own vaccine through a rapid deployment of funding. On May 12 of last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Fast Track designation. Both this and the Pfizer vaccine are taken in two doses.The interval between Moderna doses is 28 days; for the Pfizer vaccine, it’s 21 days.
Johnson & Johnson Vaccine
On February 27, Johnson and Johnson had announced a third, single-dose vaccine and was provided government contracts in the billions of dollars.With emergency use authorization, this vaccine has a lower efficacy rate of 66 percent, but has been shown to be 85 percent effective against the severe aspects of the disease. Because they are using a different way to fight the virus, Johnson & Johnson differs from the other two types of vaccine in the fact that the company didn’t use the same mRNA technology.
Medical Breakthrough with mRNA Vaccines
The reason these vaccines were so groundbreaking is because they use a new way of fighting a virus. In the past, immunization only happened through use of a deactivated virus or a live attenuated virus for which antibodies are created against. But, because of the long onset time and the potential side effects, scientists couldn’t take that same approach with COVID-19. Thus enters a new technology, mRNA or “messenger” RNA. mRNA is genetic material that instructs your immune system to produce the necessary proteins needed to fight harmful, contagious coronaviruses. Moderna and Pfizer used this mRNA system to produce the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. It’s a groundbreaking medical technology that has helped increase the speed at which vaccines can be produced, also fighting against new illnesses as they arise in the future.
Where the COVID Vaccine Stands Today
As of spring, 2021, almost 360 million vaccine shots have been administered across over 120 countries. 110 million of those shots were distributed within the U.S. Large-scale (Phase 3) clinical trials are also in progress for COVID-19 vaccines in the United States by two other companies: AstraZeneca and Novavax. Overall, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted everyone, but thankfully, because of groundbreaking medicine and new technologies like mRNA, several companies have been able to effectively produce and distribute effective vaccines – soon enough, we won’t have to think about quarantining, wearing a mask or social distancing ever again.