How did a safe COVID-19 vaccine get developed so much faster than others?

Published: Dec. 10, 2020 at 12:02 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the globe, many people are nervous.

Back in January, we were just learning about COVID-19, and the devastation it was causing in China. Fast forward through a long 11 months, and we already have a vaccine for a virus that’s killed more than 1.5 million people across the globe.

But how long does vaccine development normally take?

“Years. In this case, this was significantly accelerated,” Doctor Helmut Albrecht, the Medical Director of Infectious Disease Research and Policy for the University of South Carolina Prisma Health.

So how were teams able to make this vaccine happen so quickly? Dr. Albrecht says the big reasons are money and urgency. There was a push for a vaccine that we simply haven’t seen for other viruses, and teams were able to conduct much of the vaccine in a parallel fashion as opposed to the traditional sequential methods.

Some of you have asked why scientists haven’t been able to create a vaccine for viruses like HIV/AIDS over the course of many decades, but have produced one for COVID-19 within a year. Dr. Albrecht says it comes down to how the viruses behave.

“Viruses are different,” he said. “Some of them work by being very mutagenic which means they can change very quickly. Influenza and HIV are some of the examples. This one has a very different mechanism, it just replicates in very high levels, spreads very fast...but it doesn’t change a whole lot. So, the antibodies that worked for one patient seem to work for the next patient.”

Albrecht says when getting the vaccine, many will experience some side effects because the vaccine is trying to trigger an immune reaction in your body to help build up that layer of protection. He says, for the most part, you shouldn’t expect anything that a Tylenol wouldn’t be able to clear up.

“Achiness, swelling, redness, and some will develop some flu-like symptoms,” he said. “It’s still a safe vaccine. All of this will go away, and it’s certainly better to have a local reaction than to have COVID and risk severe disease or dying.”

Dr. Albrecht says the FDA and other health agencies didn’t bend on the set health requirements to approve a vaccine during this development process.

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