A pharmaceutical technician prepares a temperature sensitive dose of the vaccine in a isolation chamber. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA)
A pharmaceutical technician prepares a temperature sensitive dose of the vaccine in a isolation chamber. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA)

How were the Covid-19 vaccines developed so quickly?

By Keagan Le Grange Time of article published Feb 22, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - The South African vaccine roll out campaign took a few unexpected twists and turns and finally launched last week with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. While many remain skeptical, uncertainty could stem from a very important question, how was the Covid-19 vaccines made so quickly?

The global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan late in 2019 had sent the world in panic. But this historical event lead to a remarkable medical science achievement, according to UCLA Health, with the fastest development of a vaccine in history.

To understand how a vaccine was developed this quick, you first need to understand the steps it takes to create a vaccine says Dennis Cunningham, M.D., medical director of infection control and prevention at Henry Ford Health Systems, who breaks down the steps.

1. Determine the genetic sequence of the virus

The first and longest step of the vaccine development process according to Dr. Cunningham, but thanks to technology advancements and scientific improvements, cracking the Covid-19 genetic code in order to develop a molecule in the vaccine that provides protection required a lot less time.

Another big factor that assisted this step were the similarities between Covid-19, MERS and SARS, which are other coronaviruses that have been found in humans previously, helped fast-track the most time consuming step. “We already had research from these two viruses, so we were able to use it to quicken this process,” Dr. Cunningham adds.

2. Development may commence with the obtained genetic sequence, with one of the few vaccine strategies:

• Inactivate virus while keeping its major components which prevents infection

• Attenuated vaccine strategy, which is how the measles and some flu vaccines have been developed which is when a strain of the virus is heavily weakened, that although is still alive, is left unable to cause infection.

• A method Pfizer and Moderna used for their Covid-19 vaccines, where specific components such as the protein of the virus was is used in the vaccine to help prepare the body to later recognise the actual virus. “After receiving the vaccine, our body becomes familiar with this protein and can build up antibodies to defend itself against contracting COVID-19,” said Dr. Cunningham.

3. Testing the vaccine - 3 chronological phases of clinical trials:

The initial study of the vaccine on a small group of volunteers to test initial safety.

Where the vaccine is tested on larger groups around a few hundred of people to examine further safety, immune responses and efficacy.

The final phase of clinical trials tests the vaccine in tens of thousands of people to examine further safety and immune responses. With all three phases completed and successful, the vaccine can be approved for widespread use.

Although the development of the Covid-19 vaccines happened this quick, Dr Cunningham says the clinical trials weren’t rushed at all and that all three phases of the clinical trials were done carefully and properly.

4

The last step of the vaccine development process is to get it out to the public, which in most cases may be another lengthy step, due to the state of emergency the Covid-19 pandemic has left the world in, these are the factors that usually hold up production and approval:

As the fight against Covid-19 became a global effort, scientists and researchers from around the world worked together on the matter of urgency for research and development of the vaccine.

The development of a vaccine can be quite costly and usually, alone, takes years of fundraising to cover needed expenses. As the state of emergency worldwide, major corporations and governments have come together in efforts to develop a vaccine as quick as possible.

An obstacle in clinical trials are usually sourcing volunteers but given the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak worldwide many volunteers came forward signing up to play a vital role in the development of the vaccine.

All challenges that a vaccine development presents such as funding, volunteers and approvals have been removed allowing the development process to move rapidly through all requires steps with no time wasted.

Usually, approvals for vaccines and medicines takes years until final approval from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, due to the state of emergency, the Covid-19 vaccine took main priority due to required urgency, these organisations provide Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) allowing the vaccine to be rolled out beforehand under controlled measures.

“Given all the different technologies, and detailed information collected on clinical volunteer demographics, antibody and cellular responses, we might learn as much or more from human vaccine responses this year than in previous decades. Human vaccinology could make a quantum leap,” said Virologist Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas told Nature, speaking about the scientific breakthroughs, major developments and clinical trials brought upon the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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