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)

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. The FDA granted emergency authorization to the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 11 and did so a week later for the Moderna vaccine, leading some to believe the world was that much closer to ending the pandemic. But prior to the coronavirus, 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.

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 could be approved by the FDA in February, and its efficacy is also solid with 66% effectiveness against COVID-19 and 85% effectiveness against the disease’s most serious symptoms.

All five 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.

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. Making matters even more worrisome, the WHO said as many as 2 million people could die from COVID-19 before a global vaccine is ready for global use. As of February 22, the U.S. had surpassed more than 500,000 deaths.

But by the beginning of the new year, two vaccines were being given in the U.S., and the world seemed just a little more optimistic.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: History of Vaccines, CDC, National Geographic

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