During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies and researchers around the world raced to develop a vaccine. In a remarkable achievement, within a year’s time we had multiple vaccines that were clinically proven to be safe, effective, and regulated. For the vaccine hesitant, the speed at which they were developed has been cited as a reason for some people’s reluctance toward them. The truth is scientific breakthroughs like this are something to be very excited about – and here’s why:
The first thing people should know is that just because the process was sped up doesn’t mean the correct protocols weren’t followed. Trials were still conducted, peer reviews continued, and rigorous ethical standards remained. Due to the monumental effort from all scientists and the vast number of resources dedicated towards COVID research, years were shaved off the COVID vaccine development process.
A gargantuan amount of "person-hours" were put into solving the problem. The number of people working and collaborating on the developmental process was at unprecedented levels. For example, the sheer number of volunteers who signed up for vaccine trials. In 2013, a trial for an mRNA rabies vaccine took 813 days to get 101 participants. In 2020, Pfizer enrolled 43,000 volunteers in about four months. It’s amazing how much a pandemic keeping you trapped in a house can motivate you more than “you might get bitten by a raccoon”. However, if we get better at publicizing trial participation, and improve access, representation, and diversity, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be applied to future drugs and vaccines.
Breakthroughs that come out of apparently nowhere may seem scary, but remember that they are accumulative. If a caveman in 4,000 BCE suddenly pulled out a scalpel and offered you heart bypass surgery, then be suspicious and maybe ask to see his medical qualifications. However, if the caveman begins a research foundation into heart surgery, then their descendants spend centuries working on it and numerous other innovations first – such as the difficult “wash your hands before you put them in someone’s guts” phase – you can be less suspicious as his great-great-great-great-great granddaughter grunts at you about counting down from 10 while the anesthetic kicks in.
Some inventions and discoveries do truly spring from nowhere, the obvious example being penicillin. Or when Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was working on products derived from coal tar, and one day forgot to wash his hands. He went home and noticed that everything he ate tasted ridiculously sweet, from his bread and drink to (and this is an insight into how the scientific mind works) his napkin. He realized that the substance he had on his hands was the cause of his tasty napkin, and that is how the world got the sweetener saccharin. But most innovations build on previous knowledge, which build on previous knowledge, which build on previous knowledge, rather than someone tasting every suspicious powder that they happen to find in a lab.
Knowledge has a cumulative effect, given that if you (for example) wanted to work on fusion, you don’t have to go all the way back to the starting point like a caveman learning “fire hot.” Similarly, there is no way scientists would have developed the COVID vaccines with such speed without the ability to quickly sequence the genome of the virus, let alone the work on mRNA technology and vaccines that has been happening over the last 30 years.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from the lightspeed approach used to develop COVID vaccines, which can be applied to help speed up other areas of research with significant unmet needs. As in other areas of the pandemic, cooperation and sharing of knowledge were fundamental to the success of vaccine development. As were industrial collaborations – such as those between Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Sanofi and GSK. These continued scientific and industry collaborations could help accelerate the development of other initiatives in the future.
Likewise, improved discussions between companies, governments, and regulatory bodies could see drugs for diseases with a significantly high unmet need being made available more quickly, saving and improving countless lives. We saw this with COVID-19 vaccines, which were granted for emergency use while being kept under rolling review.
Improving the design, access to, and execution of clinical trials could also speed up future drug development. Trials can also be done in parallel with manufacturing planning and setup, saving time on getting medicine into the hands of patients once the therapies are found to be safe and effective.
Manufacturing itself can be improved to speed up medicine development, as we saw with the COVID-19 vaccines. While creating the vaccines was a huge first step, manufacturing enough of them for literally billions of people, and then actually delivering them to those billions of people, was always going to be a challenge. mRNA vaccines need to be stored and transported at ultra-cold temperatures. Innovations such as GPS-enabled thermal sensors and a shipper that could transport vaccines and then act as freezer storage for areas without a supercold freezing infrastructure also needed to be created. As a result of this ability to monitor both temperature and location in real-time, Pfizer had a 99 percent success rate in delivering their vaccines at the right temperature. These tools can be deployed for other temperature-sensitive medicines, such as gene therapies or future mRNA medicines, providing efficiencies never thought possible before.
Pfizer-BioNTech took the step of having parallel supply chains – one in the US and one in Europe – to speed up the process. They even used artificial intelligence to monitor data from their operations to improve logistics in the supply chain. During a time when the world has been in and out of lockdowns, further adding to the challenge, these breakthroughs in manufacturing innovation became a critical factor in helping to deliver the vaccines in record time. Tightlining the manufacturing process could help improve vaccine and drug development beyond COVID-19. Building a robust global network to deliver treatments and improving manufacturing infrastructure and supply chains can all be applied in the future to get medicines to patients wherever and whenever they need them.
Breakthroughs at the speed of science aren’t something to be afraid of. If anything, they should be championed: Now scientists have the opportunity to apply the same lightspeed approach they took with COVID vaccines to other drugs, and diseases such as cancer. That's something we should all be excited about.
A summarized infographic version of this article is available here!
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