While COVID vaccination campaigns are underway in all countries and restrictions are slowly being lifted, we should also pause and recognize how little we take for granted that these vaccines exist. With Moderna, BionTech/Pfizer, Johnson&Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sputnik V and Sinovac, there are as many as six vaccines that were available less than a year after the pandemic outbreak. In fact, the blueprints for the vaccines were available within days of the COVID gene sequence becoming available, and the clinical trials, which stretched over months, took most of the time, even though they were rushed through accelerated testing programs because of the urgency of the situation.
The speed is impressive in that traditional vaccines take several years or even decades to develop. In the case of a global pandemic, however, this is an unacceptable length of time.
Nature magazine published a comparison of different vaccines and their development. We see that research into vaccines for some diseases, such as malaria or tuberculosis, has been going on for more than 100 years – so far without success. For other diseases, the development of a vaccine took decades. The study authors calculate the development time until the time of approval by the U.S. authorities. Even the shortest development time to date for measles was ten years.
Incidentally, behind the acceleration of vaccine development and the testing of a new approach is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. agency for leapfrog innovation that first emerged from the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In 2011, DARPA brought together scientists and companies to launch a new approach to vaccine development.
The military R&D agency believed that nucleic acid-based vaccines could be developed much faster than with conventional technologies. In 2017, it issued a lofty goal of developing a DNA/RNA vaccine within 60 days and spent research money to achieve it. As a result, Moderna was the first company to receive $25 million in research funding.
The reason why a military agency like DARPA spends research money on vaccine development is easy to understand. In World War I, for example, more soldiers died from gangrene and epidemics than from the war itself. Only with the development of antibiotics or penicillin did these numbers decline, sparing many soldiers and civilians the fate of their ancestors in World War II. Vaccines and their development processes are thus militarily relevant.
It is expected that the success in developing COVID vaccines so rapidly will now be applied to other vaccines. Not only will development be faster, it will also become more cost-effective. This will also make diseases that have been less profitable or “uneconomical” for pharmaceutical companies and research laboratories attractive.
At the same time, the COVID pandemic also clearly shows us that man-made technology can make our lives worth living and rich. Without technology, people suffering from COVID would die like flies and our lives would remain limited for much longer. Human life without vaccines and with epidemics occurring on average every 30 years has been marked by such disruptions in the past. The fact that we modern people in the 21st century have the epidemic under control within such a short time and can return to a normal everyday life is solely due to human ingenuity the technologies we have created. That, despite all the prevailing skepticism about technology, is the real positive news from last year.