All available resources and efforts across the world have been directed towards finding an effective vaccine, due to the urgency of protecting people from COVID-19. These resources made it possible to quickly apply decades of research, overlap different trial phases, and accelerate the manufacturing process.
All vaccines are tested through a rigorous multi-stage process, including large clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people. These trials are specifically designed to test for safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
Traditionally, each phase of a trial is rolled out one after the other. To help make the process quicker, the phases of trials for COVID-19 vaccines were overlapped and carried out at the same time where safe to do.1
Rino Rappuoli, professor of Vaccines Research at Imperial College London, explains that increased funding allowed the pre-clinical trials, the trial phases, and manufacturing to happen in parallel instead of sequentially.1
Scientists were given large amounts of funding to rapidly progress their research for the COVID-19 vaccines and move from one step to the next without limitations.2,3 This meant companies could commence large-scale testing without delay. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine explains that the science would not have produced such fast results without this funding.1
Funding was also important for companies to set up their manufacturing facilities while the vaccines were going through the approval process. In normal circumstances, companies would wait for this approval to avoid losing money. Up-front funding was used to create the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute the vaccines around the world without financial risk.2,3
Indicative timelines for COVID-19 vaccines compared with standard vaccines2
Although the virus that causes COVID-19 is new, the family of coronaviruses was well-known.5 Researchers had been studying these viruses for many years, such as those which cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). “The fact that people had been paying close attention to coronaviruses really allowed this whole process to accelerate,” said biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Natalie Dean.1
Previous research into potential vaccines for other coronaviruses gave scientists the chance to apply what they had already learned to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.5 Their work produced vaccines with new technologies and this area has significantly advanced in recent decades. Basic research on DNA vaccines began at least 25 years ago, and mRNA vaccines have benefited from 10–15 years of strong research and testing.1
Communication around the world also helped to speed up the development of vaccines as quickly and safely as possible. Some experts estimate that many years were saved in the development process by sharing valuable information about the virus.3 This allowed research organisations around the world to begin researching the best type of vaccine as little as three weeks after the genetic make-up of the virus was released.5 Organisations such as the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations facilitated the swapping of vaccine results between countries to fast-track approvals.
The COVID-19 vaccines are not the first example of a safe vaccine being produced in a short timeframe. A vaccine against the Zika virus took only 6.5 months from its inception to human testing, and the H1N1 influenza vaccines also became widely available within 6 months of the start of the 2009 outbreak.6
- Australian Government Department of Health, COVID-19 Vaccines, is it true?
- European Medicines Agency, COVID-19 Vaccines Development Evaluation Approval Monitoring
- National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, COVID-19 FAQ
- Berthold, E. Vaccine safety and effectiveness: how is it tested?, Australian Academy of Science (2021).