Lasting transformations in vaccine development. Key lessons from COVID-19 and past pandemics
Vaccinations are one of the greatest triumphs in the history of medicine. The once devastating smallpox virus has been eradicated, and vaccination programs against other life-threatening illnesses, such as measles and meningitis, have prevented nearly 50 million deaths in the last two decades alone.
The potential for vaccine delivery at unprecedented speed
With the urgency of COVID-19, we knew we didn’t have the luxury of time. Researchers worked around the clock, and less than ten weeks after the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence was published, the first patient was dosed with an experimental vaccine.
Many factors contributed to this compressed timeline. First, the technology behind the leading vaccines was not new, but rather leveraged years of advancements in vaccine research. Scientists began creating viral vectors in the 1970s and researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades. The SARS outbreak in 2002–2003, followed by MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and Ebola, raised flags about the risk of emerging pathogens and prompted scientists to develop innovative vaccine approaches, including mRNA and viral vectors. Because of this work, mRNA and viral vector platforms were primed and ready to be deployed for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Adding to that, billions of dollars of investments poured in from companies, governments and institutions, providing the resources required to accelerate the research, scale-up, manufacturing and clinical trials of vaccine candidates.
The need for continued investment and collaboration
We are now seeing a shift in perspectives on research investment; prior to COVID-19, investors wanted to see success in each step of the vaccine development pipeline before moving forward. But the COVID-19 crisis justified the high-risk investments that flowed into R&D. Scale-up and manufacturing were initiated before clinical trials were even completed. It is clear to me that this risk has paid off.
I also recognise that at the heart of this innovation was collaboration. We have witnessed remarkable levels of collaboration across government, academic and industry sectors—each of which played an indispensable role in achieving our shared goal. I hope this lesson is one we can take with us; the science and technology behind vaccines are rapidly evolving, but we need to prioritise continuous investment, collaboration and innovative regulatory processes to match this speed of advancement in order to prevent the next pandemic.
The importance of strong and continued communication
One of the most positive changes I have seen throughout this pandemic has been the emerging public interest in pharmaceutical Research & Development. Public opinion and desire for education around vaccines have transformed as a result of COVID-19; never before have I seen people ask for a specific type of vaccine by manufacturer name!
There is now an opportunity to build on this increased public engagement. Scientific leaders can leverage platforms to educate the public and increase confidence in the safety and effectiveness of these new vaccines, as well as to promote trust in policymakers and government agencies standing behind them. I hope this pandemic has taught us that communication in science is more important than ever and deserves a place in the vaccine development pipeline.
As someone who has dedicated my career to driving advancements in vaccine R&D, it is inspiring to witness the positives that have come out of COVID-19. Transformations in the vaccine development pipeline have turned years of research, development and manufacturing into mere months. I hope this success story can encourage us to move forward with the same level of collaboration and provide motivation for sustaining research investment, collaboration and innovation for other unmet clinical needs.
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