With multiple COVID-19 vaccines coming out of the gate, one thing is certain -- the time table has been historic, with candidates progressing through clinical trials at record speed.
Now comes the ethical question: Can we ever go back?
"Do we go back to business as usual, or were there elements that were coming into play during the time of corona that could help accelerate the vaccine pipeline?" asked Stanford immunology professor Bali Pulendran, Ph.D.
Pulendran believes the answer could have profound implications for the business of vaccines. First, it helps to understand how a development process that can normally take up to a decade was compressed into months. Fueling the launch was a set of emergency laws enacted after the post 9/11 anthrax attacks, designed to combat bio-terrorism by developing emergency vaccines. Applied to the COVID-19 crisis, they opened up a massive funding pipeline guaranteeing drug makers a pre-paid market, and allowing them to jump-start development.
"So that companies could make them, even before they knew how safe or effective they were," explained Pulendran.
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The pandemic also unleashed a new level of coordinated planning for everything from distributing vaccines nationwide to figuring out how to administer them to patients, underscoring social issues like fairness and cost.
"There's nothing like a pandemic which, by its definition, does not discriminate at all, I mean everyone is vulnerable," says fellow Stanford professor Dr. David Relman, M.D.
Dr. Relman is also a professor of immunology at Stanford. He believes the need to vaccinate a majority of Americans against COVID-19 and possible future viral outbreaks could spark a fresh look at access to health care. The government has pledged to initially make COVID vaccines available for little or no cost. Still, projected profits from some of the early vaccines are estimated to reach the billions of dollars as time goes on. And drug companies will also hold lucrative patents for years to come, with future costs uncertain.
"There are so many aspects of this pandemic that have brought to light the fundamental reasons why we have a public health system," says Dr. Relman.
With thousands of lives in the balance, some believe there could be growing pressure to re-examine the government's long term role in speeding vaccine development, spear heading distribution and keeping costs to patients under control.
"I think this is a big issue, we have to take a cold hard look at the way we make vaccines," said Pulendran.
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