Record-breaking Covid-19 vaccine developed in less than a year

Published September 11, 2020, 11:57 AM

by Dr. Eduardo Gonzales

Before this, the fastest vaccine developed was for mumps, for four years

Coronavirus vaccines are rapidly advancing through the development pipeline. The University of Oxford’s vaccine is in large trials in Brazil, Britain, and South Africa. In the US, researchers just began enrolling around 30,000 volunteers to test Moderna’s vaccine, and more trials are starting every day.

At the rate researchers are working on their projects, a number of these vaccines will almost certainly beat the record for speed of development. The fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps. It took four years. Work on the candidate Covid-19 vaccines started in January and there is a good chance at least one may be available for mass immunization before the yearend. That’s less than a year. If all goes well, at least two others may be ready in 2021.

The steps in producing a vaccine

Vaccine development is a complex and painstaking multi-stage process. It starts with identifying the antigens (parts or weakened strains of a virus) that will be incorporated in the vaccine. Then, tissue-culture or cell-culture and animal testing are done to find out if the vaccine produces immunity.

Three stages of clinical testing follow. Phase I entails testing for safety and immunogenicity in normal adults (less than 100 people); phase II entails testing for immunogenicity and safety in special populations (hundreds of human subjects), while phase III, which include thousands of test subjects, continues to measure the safety (rare side effects sometimes don’t appear in small groups) and effectiveness of the candidate vaccine.

If the vaccine passes the clinical trials, it is submitted for regulatory review and approval.  It is only after it is approved by regulatory authorities (e.g., FDA) is a vaccine manufactured.  

There are some reasons why vaccine development for Covid has gone faster than usual. For one, researchers did not start from scratch. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, and the work that has already been done on the development of a vaccine for these two infections has been used in the development of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Also, some governments, notably the US and UK, have sped up the process by infusing billions of dollars into the vaccine projects.

Some research centers meanwhile have accelerated their work by combining phases. Some coronavirus vaccines are now in Phase I and II trials, for example.

The frontrunners

Currently, more than 20 candidate vaccines are in the clinical trial stage, three are already in phase III.

The vaccine that the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are jointly developing has started phase III trials in England, Brazil, and South Africa. The project may deliver a vaccine by October. AstraZeneca said their total manufacturing capacity stands at two billion doses.

In China, the state-owned company Sinopharm has reached an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to start phase III testing of its vaccine in the Gulf state. In Australia, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is conducting a Phase III trial on the re-purposed Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine to find out if the vaccine partly protects against the coronavirus. The BCG vaccine was developed in the early 1900s as a protection against tuberculosis.

Of those in Phase II trials, the American Company, Moderna, will start Phase III testing in July and hopes to have a vaccine ready by early 2021.