Is the speed with which the Covid-19 vaccine was created a cause for concern? Butantan specialist responds
by Butantan Team
Published: November 10, 2021
By the end of 2019, SARS-CoV-2 had become a major concern for the entire planet. In a short time, Covid-19, a disease caused by the virus, left a trail of patients and deaths wherever it arrived. Science rushed to create a vaccine against the disease, and the first immunizations were ready in mid-2020. Until then, it took more than 10 years for a vaccine to be ready, while the one that fights Covid-19 reached the arms of people in months.
Is an immunizer that was developed and produced in such a short time safe?
The scientific researcher and director of the Vaccine Development Laboratory at Butantan, Viviane Maimoni Gonçalves, is categorical: they are, yes, safe, and there is no reason to worry.
A work that comes from before
The biggest misconception about the vaccine is that the work to produce it began at the beginning of the pandemic — in fact, it was much earlier.
“It seems that the vaccine came out quickly, but it wasn’t quite like that. If you count the time when the technology to fight the virus was developed, it’s at least 20 years”, calculates Viviane. The technology to fight Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was already underway in 2003, when the first global outbreak involving a coronavirus took place.
“Oxford University was studying SARS-CoV. They carried out phase one and two of the clinical studies in humans, but none of the immunizing agents was ready because the pandemic ended sooner”, explains the scientific researcher.
The coronavirus reappeared in 2012, with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). As in 2003, companies conducted clinical trials, but the pandemic ended before mass immunization was needed. The technology, however, has been improved again.
When SARS-CoV-2 emerged, the technology to tackle the coronavirus already existed. What the scientists needed to do was adapt the vaccine to fight the new virus – it has a protein called Spike (protein S) that is different from previous coronaviruses.
“In fact, we were lucky that the pandemic was caused by a coronavirus, and the immune response against just one protein was enough to protect from the virus,” comments Viviane.
The researcher points out that there are other more dangerous viruses in circulation, such as HIV, which causes AIDS. This retrovirus has been studied since it was identified in the mid-1980s, and until today it has not been possible to develop a vaccine to fight it due to its high mutation rate (much higher than that of SARS-CoV-2) and complexity (it hides within the cells of the immune system).
“There were years of investment, a lot of money spent, but we still don’t have an immunizing agent. It is a great challenge for the scientific community to this day”, says Viviane.
The flu virus is also harder to fight than SARS-CoV-2 – so much so that there is an annual schedule for getting vaccinated against influenza. Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) makes a global epidemiological surveillance effort to collect circulating viruses and understand which ones will circulate next season in order to update the strains contained in the vaccine.
“People confuse a cold with the flu. Flu is a disease that can lead to death, even in the elderly”, explains the scientific researcher.
Viviane also points out that there is frequent development in research and technology, and that scientific advances in the last few decades helped in the process of developing vaccines against Covid-19 quickly. In addition, there was a large government investment from countries like the United Kingdom, China, the United States and India.
“It will always be possible to adapt to a new problem. We just hope the next one doesn’t show up anytime soon.”