Vaccines are crucial to the continuation of humankind: if not for Maurice Hilleman, who spent his life inventing and developing vaccines for illnesses that plagued children, the child and infant mortality rate would be unimaginable; if not for the discovery of the influenza vaccine, countries across the world would lose countless citizens every year.
In the U.S. alone, vaccines are estimated to prevent nearly 2.5 million unnecessary deaths each year. We know that they’re important and that we have dozens of scientists and research crews to thank for our current supply, but just how does vaccine development come about? Let’s take a look.
Putting The ‘Fun’ In Funding
Though genius minds and tireless efforts are required to physically create vaccines, people still need to get paid. The crux of science comes down to money: without constant funding, scientists wouldn’t be able to work, laboratories wouldn’t be able to run, and innovations wouldn’t be able to be discovered. Since opinion on just what research should be focused on is widely varied, it can be hard to find the funding for scientific advancements.
Canada’s recent decision to give $5.25 million to the University of Saskatchewan reveals what happens when government gets involved. The money will be split among the college’s three research centers, one of which is the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac). VIDO-InterVac will see $3.6 million of the total sum, paving the way for vaccine development and discovery.
The Science Behind The Science
Once you’ve got proper funding, the actual science can begin! Vaccines are derived using three strategies:
- Weaken the Virus: Since the goal of vaccines is to strengthen your immune system towards a particular invader, weakening the virus but leaving it “live” is an extremely effective way to do this; as a result, immunity is usually life-long. Chickenpox, measles, mumps, shingles, and rotavirus are made using weakened viruses, explaining why you only need to receive them once.
- Inactivate the Virus: Inactive viruses are considered “dead” after having been “killed” using a certain chemical. The result is complete protection from even a mild form of the disease, but requires several doses to achieve immunity; the virus is still “seen” by the body so the immune system is still able to react, but at a much weaker level (which is why influenza shots are required each flu season).
- Use Part of the Virus/Bacteria: In this situation, only the pieces of the bacteria or virus that produce the (desired) immune response are put into the vaccine. Like vaccines made with inactive viruses, however, they require multiple injections. HPV and hep B vaccines are created using part of the virus.
Drug development doesn’t happen overnight. Even if you found a revolutionary vaccine for a proliferating disease using the above methods (or some new, undiscovered one), the CDC and FDA would make you go through rigorous testing periods and trials to ensure the benefit is worth the risk. There are four phases that denote the number of trial participants and the focus: for example, Phase I uses a small batch of patients (usually between 20 and 80) and looks at the most basic aspects of the vaccine — is it working and is it safe; Phase III, on the other hand, contains thousands or tens of thousands of participants and is looking at a myriad of responses. It often takes years for new vaccines to get approved and put into production.
Last but not least, we have cleanroom standards. Contamination is a vaccine and drug developer’s worst nightmare: if the laboratory isn’t constantly held to extremely rigid cleanliness standards, life-saving medicines will end up causing more harm than good. Take the fungal meningitis outbreak the U.S. witnessed in 2012: a pharmacy in the Northeast had taken procedural shortcuts in the maintenance and cleaning of their lab during the manufacture of a certain drug, and 48 people died by the time it was recalled.
In short, getting a new vaccine made — or even a new kind of medication, for that matter — is no easy process. When the risks are so high, scientists and lab techs can’t afford to skip steps or take liberties, even if they’re up to their necks in funding.