There is widespread concern about how fast the current COVID-19 vaccines were produced compared to other past conventional vaccines such as polio, measles, and other contagious diseases – and this has nothing to do with being “health illiterate”. The concern is dangerously fanned by anti-vaxxer movements taking advantage of a natural distrust many of us harbor.
Yet their arguments fall flat in light of the real-world scenario in which vaccines have been developed over the past two decades. It does not take a “rocket scientist or brain surgeon” to tease out why and how we now have more than one apparently safe and efficacious vaccine against the nightmarish coronavirus zoonotic pandemic.
Yes, this pandemic may be equal or possibly worse than either the Spanish flu or Influenza pandemic a century ago (caused by the H1N1 virus) or the 14th century Black Death or Bubonic plague (caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis carried to its pitiful victims by fleas).
It took about 23 years before Jonas Salk developed an effective polio vaccine (IPV), apparently a long time if you consider that researchers began working on a vaccine in the 1930s. But those were unsuccessful attempts whereas Dr. Salk, an American physician and medical science researcher who started working in the 1940s, did it in 1953. Although quite variable, a reasonable estimate for developing a vaccine is about 10-15 years.
COVID-19 Vaccines Development:
The speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed is explained by two factors: (1) previous research in similar zoonotic coronaviruses, and (2) expanded reliance on One Health, a multidisciplinary approach, and an improved understanding of genomics.
(1) Rooted in SARS and MERS Research
Coronaviruses have been known since the 1960s. However, starting two decades ago, a succession of zoonotic coronaviruses have arisen to cause serious coronavirus diseases in humans, namely, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), from the virus named SARS-CoV and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), from the virus dubbed MERS-CoV. They emerged in 2003 and 2012 respectively and scientists from that time onwards, building upon past studies, have engaged in intensive research efforts.
As those zoonotic coronaviruses are similar to the virus driving the current pandemic, vaccine development was simply refocused on the SARS-CoV-2 virus of 2019 (hence the name COVID-19). Building on their experience with SARS and MERS, scientists could quickly obtain results. This is how the global biopharmaceutical industry was able to produce and begin the distribution in the U.S. and worldwide of the well-publicized Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccines, among others.
Again, that’s about 17 years. Not a fly-by-night operation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) thought—and thinks—so highly of scientific methodologies for the development of COVID-19 vaccines that when it set up the ACT-Accelerator partnership with governments, research institutes, international organizations, and civil society to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, it made clear that it considered this “the fastest, most coordinated, and successful global effort in history to develop tools to fight a disease.” Indeed, provided the needed funding can be secured, it is expected that thanks to “significant advances in research and development by academia, private sector and government initiatives, the ACT-Accelerator is on the cusp of securing a way to end the acute phase of the pandemic by deploying the tests, treatments and vaccines the world needs.”
The above-mentioned “significant advances in research” include immunology studies that have further expanded knowledge of how this vaccinology wonder works in the human body. And we now know that it is not just a matter of antibodies, B cells and T cells “mediate” immunity to COVID-19.
(2) Accelerated by a One Health Approach
Simply stated, these potentially miraculous vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, are developed through an increased understanding of genomics, an interdisciplinary, i.e. “One Health” field of biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution, mapping, and editing of the genome, i.e., an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. This includes the scientific study of complex diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes because these diseases are typically caused primarily by a combination of genetic and environmental factors rather than by specific individual genes.
Contrary to a politically ‘fashionable’ anti-science push from some reckless, irresponsible political leaders and irrational conspiracy theorists from both left and right-wing extremists, science is NOT the enemy. For that matter, neither is a majority of the news media or those that simply have another point of view in a viable decent democracy. I am referring to democracy as envisioned by the U.S. Founding Fathers who crafted a Constitutional Republic with respect for ‘the rule of law’ and the concept that this is a government of laws, not men (nor any one person, be it man or woman)…over 240 years ago.
Repeat: it should not take a rocket scientist or brain surgeon to figure out the blessings people now have via science and how these can be advanced through the utilization of an interdisciplinary One Health approach. This is the approach linking all the scientific disciplines covering humans, animals and the environment in a dynamic, relational way:
The One Health concept is a nonpartisan altruistic movement devised for the benefit of all society regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, height, weight, physical or mental ability, veteran status, military obligations, marital status, level of education attained or political persuasions.
Many people around the world understand the approach and benefit from it. One example among others, the recently founded Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. This is the country’s national public health institute, with the mandate to lead the preparedness, detection, and response to infectious disease outbreaks and public health emergencies. On their website, one finds this enlightening statement (bold added):
“ A critical part of the work we do is coordinating the interface between the human and animal health sectors through a multi-sectoral and a one-health approach. This is to mitigate threats to health security and food safety, and improve livelihoods of Nigerians for a healthier and safer nation. Since its activation in 2018, the REDISSE Nigeria Project [funded by the World Bank] has played a key role in strengthening the institutionalisation of the one-health approach to infectious disease response in Nigeria. We are grateful for the support of the World Bank in the implementation of this Project in Nigeria, the REDISSE Nigeria Project team for the excellent work they are doing and to all our partners for the support towards the success of the Project in Nigeria. …”
So many examples and so much information but so little time for dispelling unfounded skepticism during and after the rollout of vaccines needed to be injected into arms.
Regrettably, millions of ‘opinions’ are probably still carved in stone despite documented admonishments from reputable newspapers but individuals may be politically divergent. Thoughtful nonfiction authors and leading medical scientists along with those of other magazines, professional journals, newspapers, books, and conservative thinking organizations have published numerous documented articles describing the pitfalls of anti-science political leaders and how many of their followers, absent the thought process, are and can be hurt, damaged or even die believing unsubstantiated and downright false repetitious unscientific assertions.
In the late 18th century revolutionary times, physicians essentially killed one of the greatest Founding Fathers, none other than the first President of the United States, George Washington, an extraordinary American political leader, military general, and statesman. Many chalked it up to “bleeding him to death” (actually this probably led to specific complications causing death), well-meaning and appropriate for the time.
In our modern era, medicine, surgery and the science of public health (epidemiology) have advanced exponentially to much more sophisticated levels than at any time in the past. The point to note here is that the advance is exponential – faster than ever.
If adhered to, so-called “lockdown” measures work. Public health experts know to avoid “swapping air” with others by adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing. Frequent handwashing serves as a valuable ‘holding pattern’ for containing the spread of COVID-19. Also don’t touch your face mask or face (mouth, nose, eyes are points of entry for the virus) before removing any possible virus from your hands and fingertips by washing hands (sounds like an echo—it is because it is critically important to understand and practice). Simple, common-sense measures.
But scientific medical experts now have much more in their arsenal. They have life-saving antibiotics, successful heart, kidney, and lung transplants, life-saving blood transfusions, and most pertinent to this discussion, early COVID-19 therapeutic prospects for antiviral agents like Remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies reportedly used successfully on the current U.S. President and others, oxygen therapy…and preventative vaccines like those that combated polio, measles, and eliminated smallpox from the world.
We have examples in the recent past illustrating how a One Health approach to medical research can accelerate and ensure the development of vaccines. The eradication of the scourge of smallpox is a case in point. This feat can be largely credited to a One Health advocate physician epidemiologist giant, Dr. D.A. Henderson.
Included among other One Health giants were a number of well-known physicians and veterinarians, all firm believers in science in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Yet, with all these and many more proofs in the pudding, a large segment of society still believes that ‘science’, scientists and doctors, i.e. physicians, health scientist PhDs, environmentalists, veterinarians, epidemiologists, etc. are out to ‘getcha’. Omigod, that is right…you caught them red-handed! They are out to ‘getcha’ safe and help keep you healthy away from the scourges and health hazards that plague humankind. Is that so bad?
EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. Featured Image: Screenshot from PBS video (8 December) Inside the Lab That Invented the COVID-19 Vaccine: https://youtu.be/-92HQA0GcI8