Minute to Understanding May 27, 2020

Accelerating vaccine development

Traditional vaccine development is slow by design with extensive scientific review, rigorous preclinical testing, and at least three phases of progressive clinical trials. Historically, it takes between five and 10 years and over $1 billion to develop a vaccine and to make sure it's safe and effective. And that's before making enough vaccine for everyone and administering it to patients around the world.

So how do vaccines work? And how do we speed up the process?

When a virus like SARS-CoV-2 enters your body, your immune system responds by producing specific antibodies to both neutralize the current infection
and watch out for that virus's characteristic pattern, should it ever reappear. 

Traditional vaccines use all or part of killed or weakened virus to teach your immune system to recognize and act on those specific characteristics without the virus ever entering the body. Because these vaccines start as live pathogen they require extensive biosafety facilities and significant time and cost to develop.

New vaccines are taking a different approach.

Using advanced sequencing technologies, scientists are able to obtain and analyze the genetic code of a new virus within hours of discovering it. After isolating the code for the virus's specific recognizable proteins, scientists can create a template for that protein, a short, single stranded sequence of nucleotides called messenger RNA. If the mRNA sequence can be delivered to enough cells, they will create the viral proteins right within the cell, giving your immune system the means to recognize and fight any virus with these characteristics.

RNA vaccines can be made in large quantities in a matter of days at relatively low cost. However, they expire quickly and must be stored at extremely low temperatures, making distribution difficult.

Despite these challenges and the need for more testing, RNA and other novel vaccine methods have the potential to significantly accelerate vaccine development, and by refining the process for preclinical testing and clinical trials, we will soon be much more agile in the fight against an infectious disease.

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