In the history of medicine, rarely has a vaccine been developed in less than five years. Among the fastest to be developed was the current mumps vaccine, which was isolated from the throat washings of a child named Jeryl Lynn in 1963. Over the next months, the virus was systematically “weakened” in the lab by her father, a biomedical scientist named Maurice Hilleman. Such a weakened or attenuated virus stimulates an immune response but does not cause the disease; the immune response protects against future infections with the actual virus. Human trials were carried out over the next two years, and the vaccine was licensed by Merck in December 1967.
Antiviral drugs, too, have generally taken decades to develop; effective combinations of them take even longer. The first cases of AIDS were described in the early 1980s; it took more than a decade to develop and validate the highly effective triple drug cocktails that are now the mainstay of therapy. We are still continuing to develop new classes of medicines against H.I.V., and notably, there is no vaccine for that disease. And yet the oft-cited target for creating a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is 12 months, 18 at the outside.
Pulling that off is arguably the most important scientific undertaking in generations. The Times assembled (virtually, of course) a round table to help us understand the maddening complexity of the challenge and the extraordinary collaboration it has already inspired. The group included a virologist; a vaccine scientist; an immunologist and oncologist; a biotech scientist and inventor; and a former head of the Food and Drug Administration.
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