Race for COVID-19 vaccine


Scientists in China released the complete genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on January 10, 2020. On December 8, 2020, health officials in London began providing effective coronavirus vaccination to the public. The global scientific community developed COVID-19 vaccines in just 332 days.

I am a statistician, and this year I was on the judging panel for the Royal Statistical Society of International Statistics of the Year. Just like the Oxford English Dictionary “Word of the Year” competition, we are picking one statistic that is expected to capture the zeitgeist of the year.

The 332-day statistic was the clear, standing winner. After a year of horrific tragedy, economic hardship and grief, this number represents an unparalleled collaboration in medical history that will hopefully return to regularity in 2021.

Researcher working with filters of COVID-19 in a laboratory.
Vaccine development usually takes around 10 years.
Photo AP / Jessica Hill, file

The fastest vaccine development ever

In 1981, researchers established the link between human papillomavirus and cervical cancer, a disease that still causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year worldwide. However, it was not until 2006, more than 25 years later, that the first HPV vaccine was developed in the USA.

On average, it takes more than 10 years to develop a vaccine. Prior to this year, the flu vaccine was the fastest developing. That took four years.

In April 2020, the New York Times played a number of positions with vaccine experts over how long it would take to get the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Under normal circumstances, experts believed, a vaccine would be ready by November 2033.

So how is it possible that researchers got vaccinated to market in just 332 days?

The White House at night.
Huge government funding played a key role in getting the vaccine up so quickly.
Photo of AP / Susan Walsh

Government financial investment

A number of things helped to make this vaccine fast, including international cooperation of unprecedented proportions, a rapid test phase process and the biology of the virus itself. In addition to these efforts, one very important reason for the remarkable pace was the huge investment made by governments at the beginning of the pandemic.

Pharmaceutical companies usually do not have many resources that they are willing to spend on vaccine development, and governments are usually unwilling to invest unlimited money in a process that they are not sure works. .

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire playbook to the wind. As of this writing, 641 COVID-19-related treatments and 189 vaccines are being developed, most of which are government-funded.

The US government invested in a number of vaccines on the understanding that some would not work, but in the hope that some would work. Under Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government quickly pledged nearly US $ 9 billion to fund vaccine development and production. Moderna – which expects its vaccine to be the second authority for U.S. use after Pfizer’s, received just under $ 1 billion in federal funding, with another $ 1.5 billion for 100 million doses. While this number alone is not surprising – vaccines tend to cost between $ 521 million and $ 2.1 billion to develop – this was one of many expensive projects.

Funding from governments and private donors was also given towards building manufacturing facilities on the assumption that a vaccine was forthcoming and that the usual regulatory barriers would be delivered quickly. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund seven factories back in April, even if only one or two of the factories will be used.

This money was channeled into many vaccines and early preparations for manufacturing as a means of developing and deploying the vaccine in an unprecedented time. The development of COVID-19 vaccines is a testament to the innovation, commitment and collaborative efforts of the scientific community. At the end of a seemingly hopeless year, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

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