The Research and Funding that enabled the unprecedented speed of developing COVID-19 vaccines
In less than a year, two COVID-19 vaccines are here with us. This is the first time in history that a vaccine for a novel disease has been made in less than 5 years, a feat that has led some conspiracy theorists to question the validity of the vaccine. A Facebook friend who doesn’t believe COVID-19 is real had this to say at the announcement of Pfizer vaccine –
“Vaccines approvals for Covid, don’t sit well with my gut!. Simply, If all previous vaccines must be trialled and tested for 10-15 yrs before deemed safe enough for the public, yet still we find some to leave people with complicated health issues, How can anyone in their right mind think after only months of trials these Covid19 vaccines will be safe? The efficacy claim for the Pfizer Covid vaccine of 95% hasn’t even been published in a peer-reviewed journal and subjected to scientific scrutiny, yet the vaccine has gained approval from regulators. Don’t anyone find this questionable?”
Convincingly answering such skeptics may require a longer article but it should suffice to say that usually data for efficacy and safety of new drugs require four to six weeks to collect after a test subject has been vaccinated. The reason the process of making a new vaccine took 5 to 15 years prior to COVID-19 is largely due to insufficient funding, lack of elaborate collaboration between Research Institutions, and use of slow archaic technologies.
Extensive Collaboration amongst scientists and Research Institutions was key in fast tracking the making of COVID-19 vaccines
The first thing that happened at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in China was for Chinese scientists and researchers to make publicly available data on the genome of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. By the end of January 2020, scientists across the globe agreed to openly share data as they emerge even as more and more people got infected with the coronavirus. A declaration by scientists to share data was published by World Health Organisation on April 13, 2020 where the scientists affirmed to share their data in order to “help speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19“.
We will continue efforts to strengthen the unprecedented worldwide collaboration, cooperation and sharing of data already underway. We believe these efforts will help reduce inefficiencies and duplication of effort, and we will work tenaciously to increase the likelihood that one or more safe and effective vaccines will soon be made available to all“, the scientists said in the jointly signed declaration.
Collaboration did not stop at the scientists’ level. Research Institutions such as Universities and labs owned by Pharmaceuticals also collaborated in doing joint research to fast track the creation of COVID-19 vaccines. For example the first vaccine to be approved by the United Kingdom, US and Canada – the Comirnaty, was jointly worked on by the German based Biopharmaceutical New Technologies (or BioNTech SE) and the American based Pfizer. Fosun Pharma also participated in the making of the vaccine that has become popularly known as Pfizer vaccine.
Collaboration between the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and Moderna also produced the second vaccine to be approved for public use – the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine.
The vaccine BBIBP-CorV that has been approved in China, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, Serbia saw Beijing Institute of Biological Products and China National Pharmaceutical Group work together for its creation. Another vaccine that has been approved in Russia, Belarus, Argentina, Guinea, Bolivia, Algeria, Palestine, Venezuela, Paraguay, Turkmenistan, Hungary, UAE, Serbia, the Sputnik V, saw Gamaleya Research Institute and Acellena Contract Drug Research and Development work together towards its development.
Governments and the Research Institutions went ahead to establish CORD-19, The Covid-19 Open Research Dataset, where research papers on SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19 were published.
Global financing of the COVID-19 vaccines and research
Research needed to come up with a new vaccine is enormous and intensive. Other than lab studies of the virus and numerous trials needed to just come up with a viable drug, lab trials of the vaccine on animal subjects followed by clinical trials on humans require millions and billions of dollars. For example, before Comirnaty could be approved for general public use, it had to be tested on some 40,000 volunteers from several countries, and these volunteers had to be compensated for their agreement to be used as test subjects.
Thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic had governments, philanthropic organizations, and private companies agree to jointly agree to the financing of various research projects both for finding COVID-19 vaccines but also for funding measures that would help contain the spread of the virus. As noted by Gavi The Vaccine Alliance, “through COVAX –a global collaboration involving 190 countries and economies – governments have shared some of the financial risks associated with the scale-up and manufacturing of large volumes of vaccines”. COVAX is one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched in April by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and France in response to this pandemic. Bringing together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy, with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “it quickly became apparent that to end this global crisis we don’t just need COVID-19 vaccines, we also need to ensure that everyone in the world has access to them. This triggered global leaders to call for a solution that would accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as diagnostics and treatments, and guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to them for people in all countries. Today we have that solution – COVAX. The result of an extraordinary and unique global collaboration, with more than two-thirds of the world engaged – COVAX has the world’s largest and most diverse portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, and as such represents the world’s best hope of bringing the acute phase of this pandemic to a swift end”, explains Gavi on its article about COVAX.
Use of new Technologies
One thing we thank 21st century for is the existence of numerous cutting edge technologies that enable finding solutions to novel problems. These are technologies in bioengineering, computer science, material science, chemical engineering, genetic engineering, and many others just to mention a few.
In the bioengineering field, new developments have helped come up with ways scientists and technologists can manufacture things like mRNA, a technology that Moderna Inc has perfected. “Just weeks after SARS-CoV-2 was isolated and genetically sequenced, NIAID scientists, in partnership with Moderna, began a phase 1 clinical trial evaluating a potential vaccine based on a stabilized spike protein using mutations identified in their prior studies on other coronaviruses. The vaccine directs the body’s cells to express a virus protein, with the goal of causing a strong immune response”, notes NIH Record on their article titled New Technologies Speed Up Covid-19 Vaccine Research.
Advancement in genetic engineering helped scientists sequence the genes of the coronavirus within days, allowing companies such as Moderna Inc to start developing potential vaccines almost immediately. “This was the first time I have seen manufacturing outpace the clinical and regulatory processes,” said Dr. Barney Graham, Vaccine Research Center deputy director at NIAID.
“New technologies are transforming vaccinology. By combining the precision of atomic-level antigen design with the speed of platform manufacturing, a new paradigm for preparing for and responding to emerging viruses is possible,” Graham concluded.
The use of AI, Machine Learning, Data Science and other novel technologies also helped in accelerating the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed. For example, the CORD-19 mentioned above was designed to facilitate the development of text mining and information retrieval systems over its rich collection of metadata and structured full text papers, a system that couldn’t be possible without the existence of modern day Machine Learning and other AI capabilities.
What should be clear by now is that the actualization of COVID-19 vaccines within a time frame so short shouldn’t be a reason to doubt the safety of the vaccines, but rather should allow all of us to see how fast and how strong we can grow as a society that collaborate, finance, and most importantly rely on modern and future technologies in solving humanity problems. The finding of COVID-19 vaccines in a span of less than one year should tell us that when we collectively focus on a particular problem, we can get rid of that problem in no time (depending on nature of the problem).
It is important to note that those questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines are the same people who say that 5G causes COVID-19.