Thanks to unprecedented, worldwide collaboration from scientists, health and government officials, and manufacturers, the medical community was able to focus on the development and production of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Through this strong collaboration we were able to see the COVID-19 vaccine research grow and expand so that we now have the first three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use through an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).
The first two COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized for EUA, including the one authorized for youth ages 12-15, were built using a technology called mRNA, rather than using a weakened or dead virus as traditional vaccines do. Traditional vaccine production involves growing viruses in living cells and purifying the virus. There are challenges associated with this process that takes time. The mRNA vaccine has an advantage in that large amounts of the mRNA can be synthesized very rapidly.
mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a piece of a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies. mRNA vaccines are being held to the same rigorous safety and effectiveness standards as all other types of vaccines in the United States.
In an Adenovirus-based vaccine, like the authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine, scientists take part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s code (its DNA) and adds it to a modified adenovirus (the virus that can cause the common cold). This teaches your immune systems to learn to recognize and fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus without causing you to be infected. The vaccine will not give you the COVID-19 virus or cause you to be infectious to others.
While COVID-19 vaccines have been developed more quickly than has been done with other vaccines, speed did not decrease safety. In addition to the advantage for mRNA vaccine production, the timeline was shortened without sacrificing quality by:
- Overlapping phase I and phase II clinical trials. Phase I studies include a small number of people and evaluate whether the vaccine causes an immune response and is safe. Scientists could look at data from a group of people as phase II was progressing to make these evaluations.
- While completing large phase III trials, manufacturers began producing the vaccine, so that if it were shown to be safe and effective, they would have large numbers of doses ready. This is not normally done because if the vaccine does not work, the manufacturer will have spent a significant amount of money to produce something that needs to be thrown away.
- While waiting for a vaccine to be ready, many other aspects of vaccine delivery were prepared (e.g., developing plans for how to distribute the first, limited quantities available, ensuring adequate supplies for distributing and administering vaccine.)
Past research on vaccines has identified potential successful approaches which has reduced the development time for a COVID-19 vaccine. These mRNA vaccines are a product of decades of study on RNA therapies and treatment by medical scientists. Beyond vaccines, cancer research has used mRNA to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells. mRNA technology has been used successfully for cancer immunotherapy by harnessing the body’s immune system to identify and kill cancer cells in the same way the immune system identifies and targets infection from viruses or diseases.