• Aparna Deora, medical sciences vaccine category lead at Pfizer
  • Rachel Presti, medical director of the infectious disease clinical research unit at Washington University in Saint Louis
  • Helen Branswell, senior writer of infectious diseases at STAT News
  • Daniel Hoft, director of the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development
  • Bara Vaida, moderator, independent journalist, AHCJ core topic leader/infectious diseases

By Gina Jiménez

Nobody believed a vaccine for a new virus could be developed in 18 months. But it was. And developing millions of doses in such a short time required an unprecedented effort from researchers. 

The COVID pandemic expanded the understanding of what scientists thought was possible. “I cannot underscore enough the work of my colleagues. For example, said Aparna Deora, when analytical tests were done at 11 p.m., “we would have someone check them at midnight so we could have the results first thing in the morning.” 

Besides accelerating practices, the vaccine’s development:

  • Provided unrivaled opportunities to study the immune system: The fact that so many people got sick with a new virus for the very first time represented a unique opportunity for immunology researchers. “From an immunology standpoint, it is really unique for an entire population to be exposed to the same thing at the same time,” said Dr. Rachel Presti

The new virus allowed researchers to study how bodies respond to vaccines and to the infection itself in a more comprehensive manner. “We were able to take advantage of medical technology to understand how the T cells (a part of the immune response) respond,” Presti said. “Before the pandemic, we hadn’t really seen how the immune response develops in humans.”

  • Demonstrated the potential of mRNA technology: Before the pandemic hit, not all researchers had a lot of  faith in the technology. But that changed in the next three years. The pharmaceutical companies took a significant risk with the technology, and the pandemic proved it was worthy, Deora said. “It really validated mRNA technology for many of them,” she said. “[mRNA technology] is not only fast, but highly effective and safe.” Pfizer is already working on other mRNA vaccines, including one flu vaccine, she said. 
  • Underscored the importance of diversity: It’s been widely reported how medicine fails to study marginalized population. The pandemic compelled more diverse clinical trials that can lead to treatments for all ages and sexes, Presti said.“We tend to enroll too many white men in these trials,” she says, adding how important it is to develop medications and vaccines that work for the entire population.

The industry still faces significant challenges. Researchers need to create vaccines that, besides protecting from hospitalization and death, can block infection and transmission, said Dr. Daniel Hoft, director of the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development. 

Developing countries also need to find a way to access vaccines more quickly when the next pandemic hits. And they need to find ways to make their own vaccines, said Helen Branswell, senior writer of infectious diseases and global health at STAT News. “As long as the world relies on companies in North America, China and India, a lot of people are going to have to wait.” 

Despite the many challenges, Hoft said it’s important to celebrate the many recent achievements. “There is a long way ahead, but we must also appreciate how far we have come.”