How Were the COVID-19 Vaccines Made So Fast?

Vaccines for COVID-19 are now widely available. In the past, it’s taken many years to create a vaccine that’s ready for public use. But over decades of creating vaccines, research groups and public health agencies have been making the vaccine process better and faster.

So how did the COVID-19 vaccines happen so quickly? It turns out that a global pandemic can rally resources very quickly in many countries. This made a lot happen in less time.

Science that started years ago

The COVID-19 vaccines got a head start from work that’s been going on in science for a long time. Scientists have been working on processes for creating all kinds of vaccines for many years. And researchers have been watching and studying coronaviruses for decades. They are a very common type of virus. There are hundreds of types of coronaviruses. And scientists had seen two other serious types affect humans just in the past 20 years: SARS and MERS.

Decades of research into DNA also made the process faster. The DNA genome (genetic code) for COVID-19 was mapped within 2 weeks. This helped labs work quickly to target exactly what kind of vaccine could attack the virus.

Powerful partnerships

In the last 10 years, when the deadly Ebola virus was spreading, experts realized the vaccine was taking too long to develop. What would happen when new germs started spreading and causing serious problems? Agencies and other groups around the world started planning ways to make new vaccines more quickly.

When facing the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups decided to work together to fight it. Scientists shared information, such as the genome for the virus. Groups of experts worked together to share data, raise money, and figure out the best ways to fight the virus. These groups included:

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

  • European Commission

  • U.K. Government Vaccines Taskforce (VTF)

  • United Nations (193 countries)

  • World Health Organization (WHO)

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  • Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator

  • Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)

  • Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance

In the U.S., a special Department of Defense (DoD) program called Operation Warp Speed (OWS) was created to help get COVID-19 vaccines ready quickly. OWS is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the DoD, and many medical research and manufacturing groups.

These groups agreed to work together closely to communicate and move through a process to develop safe COVID-19 vaccines more quickly.

Funding from many sources

It takes a lot of money to research, test, produce, and distribute a vaccine. For COVID-19 vaccines, many international sources of funding came together. All of these sources committed billions of dollars to the efforts. Groups in the powerful partnerships noted above contributed or raised funds very quickly. Nonprofit groups and private citizens donated money to the vaccine development, too.

Efficient vaccine testing

It often takes years for vaccines to be tested. The tests are known as clinical trials. They can take time to organize, gather volunteers, and then roll out one by one over many months. This is often the longest part of the vaccine process.

For the COVID-19 vaccines, researchers were much more efficient in their testing schedules. There are different phases of testing vaccines, on both animals and people. These are called Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. In the past, these tests were spaced out over years. But for the COVID-19 vaccines, many volunteers were signed up quickly. Phase I, II, and III trials happened with different groups in overlapping schedules. Vaccine approval agencies looked at testing data as it was happening and didn’t waste time.

Making data a priority

U.S. government agencies and task forces that approve vaccines allow themselves lots of time to work. They take time to receive data, look at data, have meetings, talk about the data, and decide what to approve or not. They have many projects in progress over time.

But for COVID-19, these agencies and task forces acted quickly to make the COVID-19 vaccine the priority. This meant that they got data faster, looked at it right away, and discussed the data while the clinical trials were happening. They also used a process called Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This means the FDA fast-tracked its decisions based on the data.

How were the COVID-19 vaccines approved for safety?

The COVID-19 vaccines you can now get have passed many tests in labs, were studied in tens of thousands of people, and now have been given to billions of people around the world. They meet strict standards from the FDA and have been shown to be safe, with generally mild side effects, in widespread use around the world.

Ongoing public input

Work on the vaccines hasn’t stopped. Anyone who gets a vaccine can give information about their personal experience. You can contact the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. The CDC also has a smartphone app called the V-Safe app. This app gives you a way to check in and report any side effects you may have from the vaccine. In some cases, a person from the CDC may call you to ask more questions. The CDC also tracks the vaccine in care facilities through the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Melinda Murray Ratini DO
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2023
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