Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical extracellular viral particles contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

Q: Why have virus vaccine trials moved faster than other vaccine trials?

A: Vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed, tested and reviewed with unprecedented speed in the U.S., as drug makers and researchers have worked to rapidly produce a vaccine that could curb the spread of COVID-19.

For COVID-19, there were several advantages. Researchers globally had access to the sequence of the virus very quickly, said Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. In addition, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is genetically very similar to the original SARS virus, which caused an outbreak in 2003.

“That already accelerated a lot of work because we had a lot of prior knowledge,” said Bottazzi, who is also the associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. If the world had been facing a disease caused by a different family of viruses, Bottazzi said, scientists would have had less information to build on.

Researchers and vaccine developers around the world were able to capitalize on this knowledge, and benefited from huge sources of funding as countries like the U.S. scrambled to find a way to curb the pandemic. While companies were developing the vaccines, they simultaneously began manufacturing them, so that any vaccines proven safe and effective could quickly be distributed. Drug makers were only able to do this thanks to massive investments from the U.S. government and other groups.

“Ordinarily when companies are fronting all the money for themselves, they will generally try to see if a thing works before making massive stockpiles,” said Ben Neuman, an expert on coronaviruses and the head of the biology department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.

“That is not what happened this time. They made vast stockpiles of (the vaccines),” Neuman explained in an educational video. “A lot of this has been made possible by government money going into the companies.”

Because drug makers weren’t only investing their own money to test and develop vaccines, Neuman explained, they were able to simultaneously manufacture the vaccine while testing.

“The fact that industry is able to hedge their bets like this and to make these investments is because the government has put up the money,” said James Le Duc, the director of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory, in an interview with Stat News. “The government has recognized that this is an incredibly important issue and we need to be going full blast knowing full well that not all these vaccines will work. Some are going to be duds, and will lose money.”

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