Innovation in the Drive for a Coronavirus Vaccine

Family outside in a green pasture.
A vaccine is coming, and innovation will ensure it’s the best possible.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and impacts from attempts to manage it have brought forth some stunning creativity and scientific work. However, to move the world forward from the pandemic will require an innovation strategy in vaccines and medical science. Here are some fascinating steps forward as we find that way.

Scientific Innovation

By far, the approach that’s gotten the most attention is the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine approach. Vaccines are technically viruses, whether dead, alive but compromised, or in parts, for the immune system to detect and develop the antibodies to fight. But if the virus is too compromised, the vaccine is ineffective, creating a tough balance to strike.

The mRNA approach promises to reduce development times while increasing vaccine effectiveness. Think of mRNA as the instructions issued to a cell; the cell will begin making a certain protein that the immune system sees as foreign and starts attacking, creating the antibodies needed without needing to attenuate the virus or even have near the body.

This approach had been in the development pipeline before, yet COVID-19, with its unique “spike” protein, offers the perfect opportunity to advance the science, speeding up the vaccine pipeline and possibly changing public health.

Regulatory Streamlining

The risk of a bad vaccine is a serious one. That means, scientifically, no corners can be cut. However, that still leaves room to substantially speed up the process.

For example, several nations are allowing overlap in the process. If a pre-clinical study of a vaccine is promising, and enough of the data is in to reasonably forecast final results, a clinical study will begin while the pre-clinical work is finishing up. Others are allowing “pre-approval” manufacturing of promising vaccine candidates under the logic that the cost of waiting to manufacture a virus will be worse than having to throw away a promising candidate that doesn’t shake out.

Some of these approaches will only apply to the current situation. Others, though, promise to add speed to the development of high-priority vaccines and other medications.

Two scientists looking at liquid under a microscope.
Research isn’t the only key to innovative vaccines.

Turning the Unknown Known

Pandemics have been a common thread throughout human history. In the twentieth century alone, even in the face of rapid advances in medicine and the raw memories of the 1918 influenza pandemic, two other major pandemics arrived in 1957 and 1968. The reason those other two are less well known is that we learned from each and developed effective strategies to manage and contain influenza.

Similarly, as we’ve found other pathogens, we’ve learned from them how to more effectively treat and contain them. For Ebola, for example, cultural education turned out to be a key weapon in preventing the spread. This, in turn, has taught us how to handle other pandemics.

It’s widely believed that unless there are substantial changes in how we treat the environment, other pathogens will escape into the larger world. While we’re doing the work to protect forests and end the wildlife trade, we can learn from the psychological and physiological impacts to mitigate other pathogens.

Innovation strategy is one piece in the mosaic of skills, approaches, and disciplines that’s been brought to bear on COVID-19. Once the pandemic has been ended, that mosaic will be kept in place to help protect the future. To learn more about innovation and COVID-19, join our newsletter!

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