Developing a vaccine can take many years. Yet, the first COVID-19 vaccines came out less than a year after discovering the virus that causes COVID-19. How did that happen?
It is important to know that the vaccines completed all the steps to test them and check for safety. Nothing was skipped. COVID-19 vaccines are going through all the usual steps for approving a vaccine.
What was different this time?
This time, cooperation between researchers, the federal government and private companies shortened the usual timeline. Here are some reasons why the process was quicker for COVID-19 vaccines:
- Scientists had a head start. The COVID-19 vaccine effort builds on earlier worldwide research on the coronavirus (especially the SARS and MERS viruses) and advances in vaccine technology.
- Funding was available. Sometimes finding money for vaccine studies can take a lot of time. For COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government provided a lot of money right away to fund the vaccine effort.
- Studies overlapped. Researchers recruited people for all three phases of the clinical studies at the same time. Due in part to extra funding, they were able to run all three phases of the study at the same time instead of one after the other.
- Production began early. Backed by help from the federal government, manufacturers began making and packaging the vaccines while the clinical studies were still happening.
- Less red tape. The new COVID-19 vaccines are authorized with an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This takes much less time than a usual approval process. Groups at the federal level are not letting anything delay them from reviewing vaccines. For example, the FDA added a lot of staff to shorten the review process from months to weeks.
- Study vaccines worked. Because COVID-19 is so widespread, scientists could see fairly quickly how many vaccinated people got COVID-19 compared to how many got sick without the vaccine.
- Safety first. A vaccine is only approved if the studies show that it is safe and that it works. As more people take the vaccine, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will collect information about the vaccine and continue to study how well they work.
We have more to learn
The vaccine studies are ongoing, and real world information is being added all the time to what we know from the studies. Data to date show that vaccines are very safe and effective. There are still things that we need to learn about the COVID-19 vaccine:
- How long will protection from the vaccine last?
- Can vaccinated people still spread the disease to others?
- Will changes in the virus mean new vaccines need to be developed in the coming years?
- Are there other rare side effects we will learn about once millions of people are vaccinated? If a rare side effect occurs (like with Johnson & Johnson), the reporting and review process allows scientists to quickly identify it and take action. In fact, after more study, national and state health officials have decided that for most adults, taking one of the mRNA vaccines is preferred over J&J.
These are all good questions that need more study. But they are not reasons to delay getting vaccines out to people right now. Vaccines are our best defense against COVID-19.