It’s been two full years since officials announced, in Seattle, the first US death from SARS-CoV-2. That would not be the first COVID-19 death, but it was the first known death at the time.
The world’s response to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) built upon research undertaken since the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome CoV (MERS-CoV).
“The speed from DNA sequencing until clinical trials was unprecedented,” according to Dr. Sang-Hwan Seo at the International Vaccine Institute.
Before 2020, the mumps vaccine held the record for fastest vaccine development. It took four years, in the 1960s.
A vaccine timeline
A Chinese public health official shared the genetic sequence of the unknown pneumonia virus (Wuhan-Hu-1) on 05 January 2020. BioNTech (which developed the BioNTech-Pfizer mRNA vaccine), began work on a vaccine on 12 January 2020.
On 20 January 2020, the CDC announced the first U.S. laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. The samples had been taken on 18 January in Washington state. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on 11 March.
Then on 16 March 2020, the first human trial of a COVID-19 began in Seattle, WA at the Kaiser Permanente research facility; this would become the Moderna mRNA vaccine.
On 02 December 2020, the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine became the first fully-tested immunization in the world to be approved for emergency use against Covid-19 .
After the UK approval, on 21 December the US Food and Drug Administration granted the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine emergency use authorization.
How so fast?
Researchers had begun vaccine development for SARS-CoV after it was discovered in 2003 and then for MERS-CoV in 2012. One MERS vaccine did successfully complete a phase 1 clinical trial in 2019. However, after both strains of the CoV virus disappeared, vaccine research ceased.
Unlike conventional vaccines, an mRNA vaccine “does not contain any viral proteins itself, but only the information that our own cells need to produce a virus trait that triggers the desired immune response.”
Researchers have also explored developing mRNA vaccines for influenza, rabies, Zika and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
Testing takes the most time in vaccine development. Normally, animal testing precedes human testing, which then occurs in three sequential phases. Billions of dollars in private and public monies “made it possible for companies to take financial risks by running some tests at the same time.”
The COVID-19 experience will almost certainly change the future of vaccine science, says Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources.”
However, pharmaceutical companies were successful in accelerated development in large part because the virus was “everywhere” and “firms need infections to show that vaccines work.”