Public support and new tech were key to developing the coronavirus vaccine in record time, without sacrificing the rigorous standards of science.
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Kalamazoo was the site of history in motion in 2020 when it produced the trial doses for what would eventually become Pfizer’s vaccines for the coronavirus pandemic. And it was developed at an incredible pace.
Most vaccines are developed in about five years. The previous record for fastest vaccine was held by the current mumps vaccine, which took about four years. Pfizer, whose COVID-19 vaccine was the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had its vaccine administered within a year of the first recorded coronavirus case in the United States .
“If there’s any silver lining in the fact that our country is currently on fire with this virus, it’s that these trials can reach a conclusion much quicker than otherwise,” Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and FDA vaccine advisory panel member, told the New York Times.
That remarkable pace has raised concerns among the public that it was in fact rushed. Experts told The ‘Gander that despite its expeditious development process, Pfizer’s vaccine went through rigorous trials and the scientific process was followed at every step. Things like public support for the vaccine and taking full advantage of technology available today helped make the vaccine a record-setter.
Still, retired pharmacist Dr. Mike Tiberg, who is back to work preparing the vaccine in Traverse City, understands the concern, and tries to ease that worry with information.
“When I hear someone like that, I don’t try to talk them into it,” he told The ‘Gander. “But I try to give them the facts that are available … The studies that were done were taken in the exactly the same way as any other medical study.”
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Tiberg reassured Michiganders that the effort going into both the approval process and the underlying technology used in the vaccine weren’t different from normal procedures or in any way lax; they were just faster. And there are reasons why drugmakers were able to develop vaccines so quickly.
As Dr. Rob Davidson, a west Michigan ER doctor and head of the Committee to Protect Medicare and Medicaid, reminded, while this vaccine is new, the underlying science and technology have years of development behind them.
“The development followed all of the safety checks and guidelines and was built on years of work that began with the SARS and MERS outbreaks in 2003 and 2012,” he told The ‘Gander. “The mRNA technology isn’t new. It’s been around for a decade. It’s a platform that allows for rapid development of vaccines once the mRNA sequence is obtained.”
Essentially, what that means is rather than using weakened versions of the virus itself like traditional vaccines, the coronavirus vaccines directly code the body to recognize the virus and attack it by developing “spike proteins” the virus uses and by training white blood cells to identify and attack that protein, which in turn means attacking the virus.
And mRNA is easy to make, adding to its speed as a vaccine solution.
This means that not only are mRNA vaccines faster to make, but they’re less likely to result in infection. Leveraging a decade of study into this new vaccination method helped launch coronavirus vaccine development into high-gear, getting them to clinical trials quickly.
“After that, the trials were not fast; they were the normal duration for the establishment of safety, and they had the appropriate number of cases to establish efficacy,” Davidson explained. “And the [emergency use authorization], while faster than standard approval, still takes into account the safety and efficacy data generated during the trials.”
A major benefit to those clinical trials progressing quickly was public support. Pfizer and other vaccine developers had no shortage of volunteers for the necessary trials to be approved for use. This allowed the clinical trials to proceed at full speed, which is not always the case with emerging medicines.