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Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Development Enabled by Previous Research Investments, Study Suggests

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According to a new study published in Vaccine, the rapid pace of COVID-19 vaccine development was enabled by pre-pandemic research on vaccine technologies funded by over $17 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The rate of COVID-19 vaccine development has been unprecedented: less than one year after the initial outbreak, the
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had authorized emergency use of two vaccines against the disease, with a third following only two months later. In comparison, the usual time frame for the drug development process can be anywhere between 10-15 years.

Investigating the maturity and funding of vaccine research

In an effort to prepare for future pandemics, researchers have sought to identify the factors that enabled this accelerated level of development. In the latest study, using information from the
World Health Organization on the landscape of COVID-19 vaccine development as of July 2020, the authors first identified the 10 key technologies used in vaccine candidates – the COVID-19 vaccine toolkit – including synthetic, inactivated virus and mRNA-based vaccine technologies. Whilst all the technologies in the toolkit existed prior to the pandemic, their established clinical use was varied. For instance, prior to  the emergency use authorization (EUA) of Pfizer–BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in December 2020, no mRNA vaccines had been approved for clinical use in humans.

NIH-funded research on the key technologies was then examined to determine how these technologies had matured towards clinical development, searching PubMed for papers published between 1960-2019. The authors identified 51,530 papers relating to vaccine technology development, of which 8,420 acknowledged funding from the NIH – a total of  $17.2 billion. Although the largest portion of funding ($9.2 billion) was awarded to research on synthetic vaccines – which also accounted for the highest percentage of published papers – research covering all 10 of the key technologies received funding from NIH. It was this broad approach to funding that the authors suggest contributed to the accelerated pace of COVID-19 vaccine development, providing scientists with a wealth of technologies to work with.

Considering what can be learnt in order to prepare for future pandemics, the researchers pinpointed problems in the patterns of funding. “This study also found surprisingly little NIH-funded, published research on vaccines for recognized pandemic threats, such as coronavirus, Zika, Ebola or dengue virus," said Dr
Anthony Kiszewski, lead author of the study. Despite a 2016 report from WHO identifying coronaviruses as a legitimate pandemic threat, the authors discovered that number of NIH-funded research papers relating to coronavirus vaccines dropped after 2015.

Limitations and future directions

In the study’s conclusion, the authors note three main limitations to consider when interpreting the findings:

  • Only published papers found in PubMed were included – other relevant research could be found in unpublished documents, such as reports for regulatory bodies.
  • Lack of data meant that it was not possible to determine the exact associated costs for each NIH-funded paper.
  • Research funded by organizations other than NIH was not included.

The study highlights the importance of investment in broad, basic vaccine research for rapidly tackling future pandemics and in ensuring that funding is no longer sporadic.

“Mechanisms need to be developed for funding research on vaccine technologies that accelerate vaccine development against emergent threats and preempt future pandemics," concluded Kiszewski.

Kiszewski AE, Cleary EG, Jackson MJ, et al. NIH funding for vaccine readiness before the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccine. 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2021.03.022.