Until now, what’s the quickest a vaccine has ever been developed?

what's the fastest a vaccine has been made
Photo via Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: May 10, 2021

President Trump said in May 2020 that a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready as early as January 2021, and though experts warned that his timeline was incredibly optimistic, people started receiving the vaccine a month earlier than that. Now, there are three vaccines approved in the U.S. and potentially a fourth on the way. Prior to the coronavirus, though, what was the fastest a vaccine has ever been made?

Previously, the mumps vaccine was the quickest to have ever been developed, according to National Geographic. And that took four years, from collecting viral samples to licensing the drug in 1967. For what it’s worth, it was originally estimated that it might take 12-18 months to create a coronavirus vaccine, though it was closer to about nine months.

Typically, vaccines take as long as 10-15 years to develop, according to the History of Vaccines. Researchers have to employ three phases to create one, beginning with testing animals before slowly moving to testing on people. Development takes so long because researchers have to wait for thousands of healthy people to contract a virus and then volunteer to get the vaccine—unless they use ethically questionable human challenge trials. In a human challenge trial, people voluntarily get infected with a virus so they can test out the vaccine. 

Still, the search for a COVID-19 vaccine stands out from other developments because it is the first one the entire science community has come together to develop. The World Health Organization said it wants to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021, and the Biden administration by mid-February was trying to send out more than 13 million vaccine doses per week (by March, the U.S. had topped 2 million per day, and in April, that number rose to more than 4 million).

In early May, Biden said he’d like to see at least 70% of Americans have at least one dose of the vaccine by July 4.

As infectious diseases expert Dr. Supriya Narasimhan told Nautilus in January 2021, in regards to a worry about whether the vaccines will still be effective against the COVID-19 variants that recently emerged, she said, “What the last year has shown is that we are capable of engineering a novel vaccine in a span of months, so re-engineering them to include mutations is not insurmountable.”

When they were released, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines hovered around the 95% effectiveness rate. Meanwhile, the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine has a worldwide efficacy of 66% effectiveness against COVID-19 and 85% effectiveness against the disease’s most serious symptoms.

The vaccinations that are currently available globally drastically reduce deaths from coronavirus complications, but the South Africa variant of COVID-19 seemingly has bypassed the AstraZeneca version of the vaccine. Meanwhile, millions of AstraZeneca doses, which the rest of the world needs, are waiting in the U.S. for approval. While that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon in April 2021, the U.S. is preparing to export as many 60 million AstraZeneca doses to other countries in need.

On April 13, the FDA and CDC recommended that the U.S. stop giving the Johnson & Johnson version because of a rare blood-clotting disorder that developed in six people out of the 7 million who had already received the vaccine. But that temporary ban was lifted 10 days later.

On Sept. 18, Trump said there would be enough vaccines for all Americans by April 2021, though plenty of other scientists and experts didn’t agree with that optimistic view. Later, Biden said he wanted everybody vaccinated by May 1, and on April 19, he announced that every adult in the U.S. was now eligible to be vaccinated.

Now, four months into the new year, three vaccines were being given in the U.S., and the world seemed just a little more optimistic.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: History of Vaccines, CDC, National Geographic

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