Crash effort to develop coronavirus vaccines has revolutionized disease treatment

Credit: Alex Hogan/STAT
Credit: Alex Hogan/STAT

The COVID-19 experience will almost certainly change the future of vaccine science, says Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources,” he says. New ways of making vaccines, such as by using messenger RNA (mRNA), have been validated by the COVID-19 response, he adds. “It has shown that the development process can be accelerated substantially without compromising on safety.”

The world was able to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly because of years of previous research on related viruses and faster ways to manufacture vaccines, enormous funding that allowed firms to run multiple trials in parallel, and regulators moving more quickly than normal. Some of those factors might translate to other vaccine efforts, particularly speedier manufacturing platforms.

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But there’s no guarantee. To repeat such rapid success will require similar massive funding for development, which is likely to come only if there is a comparable sense of social and political urgency. It will depend, too, on the nature of the pathogen. With SARS-CoV-2, a virus that mutates relatively slowly and that happens to belong to a well-studied family, scientists might — strange as it sounds — have got lucky.

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