Developing Covid-19 Vaccines at Pandemic Speed


The need to rapidly develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 comes at a time of explosion in basic scientific understanding, including in areas such as genomics and structural biology, that is supporting a new era in vaccine development.

Over the past decade, the scientific community and the vaccine industry have been asked to respond urgently to epidemics of H1N1 influenza, Ebola, Zika, and now SARS-CoV-2. An H1N1 influenza vaccine was developed relatively rapidly, largely because influenza-vaccine technology was well developed and key regulators had previously decided that vaccines made using egg- and cell-based platforms could be licensed under the rules used for a strain change.

Although a monovalent H1N1 vaccine was not available before the pandemic peaked in the Northern Hemisphere, it was available soon afterward as a stand-alone vaccine and was ultimately incorporated into commercially available seasonal influenza vaccines.

Vaccines for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola, and Zika did not follow a similar path. The SARS and Zika epidemics ended before vaccine development was complete, and federal funding agencies reallocated funds that had been committed to vaccine development, leaving manufacturers with financial losses and setting back other vaccine-development programs.

Development of an Ebola vaccine by the Public Health Agency of Canada had been on hold when the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak began. The U.S. government provided funding to accelerate the vaccine’s development, which was ultimately transferred to Merck. The company continued development even when the outbreak ended, and stockpiles of investigational product were available for use in the recent outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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