PARIS — It was only back in May that experts palmed off the 12-month goal post for a COVID-19 vaccine as wishful thinking. Now, with more than 140 candidate vaccines being developed, including three already in the final phase-3 trial, it seems we may be sprinting towards a new speed record in medical development.
"The early trial results of several vaccines … have been very promising," Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Reuters. "We should definitely ‘believe" these results, while acknowledging that they do not prove the vaccine is effective."
There was nothing strange in the scientific establishment initially raising eyebrows over the optimistic timelines of certain researchers and political leaders. After all, vaccine development is a complex process that often lasts in the order of 10 to 15 years. The fastest one ever developed was for mumps in 1967, and it was a four-year process.
This time around however, the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry had a few factors in their favor. While no vaccine has ever been developed against a coronavirus, scientists had already conducted substantial research on the related SARS virus. This allowed fast-tracked design and animal testing once genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 were published, which was also done just weeks following the discovery of the first syndromes. It also helped that the urgent need to counter a novel virus came after a decade of scientific racing to combat other epidemics, such as Ebola, Zika and the Swine Flu, which had already improved the infrastructure of vaccine development.
But more than anything, the sense of urgency has in the last few months ushered in a new and potentially game-changing way of conducting medical research — one defined by speed and open access. Already by the outbreak's beginning, researchers began switching to a different form of publishing, where scientific articles were made publicly available before passing the gauntlet of peer review. This pivot has now been accompanied by both private and publicly funded instruments for data-sharing, such as the European Commission's COVID-19 Data Platform aimed at rapid collection and sharing of available research. Vaccine developers too, are doing all they can to fast-track a usually lengthy process by running simultaneous trial phases.
We've managed to compress decades-worth of research into a few months. What more we could achieve?
Still, despite this new system of open science and expedited trials, experts caution against premature excitement. There are still aspects of the virus that scientists don't fully understand, such as how it affects our immune response, while there will also be the challenge of making billions of doses available to the worldwide public once a vaccine is approved.
We're not there yet. But the fact that we have managed to compress years or even decades-worth of resources into a few months moves one to ask what more we could achieve. As said by Forward Ventures founder Standish Fleming: "If collaboration is able to achieve these results in a crisis, could it do the same against the major diseases, like cancer and Alzheimer's disease, which kill more people each year than COVID-19? Could a cooperative industry be more productive than a competitive one?"
Hard questions we won't begin to answer until we close that first question: When will we have the shot that puts this pandemic to rest?