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: July 21, 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. 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, though by late June, the White House acknowledged that wasn’t going to happen. But by mid-July, experts in the U.S. were worried about the immense spread of the delta variant and how vaccines would perform against it.

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. Covaxin, available mostly in India, has shown 78% efficacy against symptomatic disease.

All the vaccinations that are currently available globally drastically reduce deaths and hospitalizations from coronavirus complications.

In mid-May, the Biden administration said it would export another 20 million vaccine doses (made up of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) to countries abroad. The Johnson & Johnson version, though, has struggled with distribution in May 2021 (though it’s being distributed in other countries) and it’s taken a back seat to Pfizer and Moderna in the U.S.

The Novavax vaccine, meanwhile, might not get an emergency authorization in the U.S. but could try for a full license from the FDA later in 2021.

Now, six 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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