The Lightning-Fast Quest for COVID Vaccines

The speedy approach used to tackle SARS-CoV-2 could change the future of vaccine science.

When scientists began seeking a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in early 2020, they were careful not to promise quick success. The fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s. To hope for one even by the summer of 2021 seemed highly optimistic.

But by the start of December, the developers of several vaccines had announced excellent results in large trials, with more showing promise. And on 2 December, a vaccine made by drug giant Pfizer with German biotech firm BioNTech, became the first fully-tested immunization to be approved for emergency use.

That speed of advance “challenges our whole paradigm of what is possible in vaccine development”, says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It’s tempting to hope that other vaccines might now be made on a comparable timescale. These are sorely needed: diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia together kill millions of people a year, and researchers anticipate further lethal pandemics, too.

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