How the system of science has improved during COVID
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the hand of scientists across the globe, as experts put their existing research on hold to redirect their efforts towards fighting the coronavirus. This global scientific approach has allowed new vaccines to be developed at unprecedented rates and will provide the foundations for dealing with future disease outbreaks.
Prior to the pandemic, it would take as long as 10-15 years to develop a vaccine. The mumps vaccine was previously the fastest vaccine to be developed, taking around 4 years to complete. Fast forward to 2022 and new vaccines are being developed in under 12 months. Doing this is no easy feat however, and there are numerous factors to consider when looking at how this was made possible.
Firstly, governments have been pouring billions into the vaccine development process. This means that financial risks could be taken which weren’t previously possible. Furthermore, due to the number of people contracting the virus, there were lots of volunteers willing to take part in clinical trials, speeding up the trial recruitment process. Finally, the widespread nature of the disease has meant that scientists across the globe have been working together and sharing their research to accelerate the vaccine strategy.
Traditionally, vaccines contain a weakened or dead form of a virus, which when administered into the body stimulates an immune response. The body produces white blood cells to combat the virus, and some of these cells will remain in the immune system after the virus is removed. These are termed memory cells. If the body then encounters the true virus, the immune response is much faster as memory cells are already in the bloodstream. This is an effective form of vaccine; however, the development process is time-consuming as researchers need time to develop the virus. A safer and quicker alternative is to create a vaccine using messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA is a small strand of RNA which is used to make proteins in the body. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid vaccines were made using mRNA technology. This health-tech, though understood for a long time, has been under intensely under development for the last two years.
Following the identification of coronavirus in late 2019, scientists in China carried out extensive genomic sequencing to determine the genetic makeup of the virus. The virus’s genetic information was published at the beginning of 2020, and this was essential to developing the mRNA vaccines. When the vaccine is injected into the arm, the mRNA enters the body and instructs the cells to produce a harmless version of the virus’ spike protein. The spike protein is found on the surface of the coronavirus, and the virus uses this protein to enter human cells. Once our cells have created the harmless spike protein, they will display it on their cell surface. The cells of our immune system recognise the spike protein as belonging to a virus and activate other immune cells and antibodies to destroy the infection. Much like in traditional vaccines, some of these immune cells will stay in the bloodstream, so if you are infected with the true virus, your body will be prepared to elicit a quick immune response.
The mRNA from the vaccine used to make the harmless spike protein is broken down within a matter of days. Despite the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being the first mRNA vaccines used in humans outside of clinical trials, the technology itself is not new and researchers are pushing to develop mRNA vaccines for other diseases. Equally, coronaviruses themselves are not new and there are other coronaviruses which use their own spike protein to enter cells. Some of the prior knowledge scientists accumulated on coronaviruses therefore will have been harnessed in order to understand more about covid-19.
All in all, coronavirus has brought a wave of health-tech developments. In desperate times, governments, the private sectors, and scientists at-large invest together to implement new technologies. The COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA are one example. But now, we can learn and apply these systems to diseases from an array of origins. It’s truly a renovated and enriched system of science.