Why the covid-19 vaccine is the greatest scientific feat in history

By size, not by character or motivation, we can cite two antecedents of this company. The first is the Manhattan project. It allowed the Americans to have, in a few years, the atomic bomb. During its development (1942-1947), it involved 130,000 people and the equivalent of 70 billion current dollars was dedicated to it, although only 10% of that amount was used for the development and production of weapons.

The second, more technological than scientific, was the Apollo program, thanks to which human beings stepped on the lunar surface on six occasions. The program lasted for more than a decade (1961-1972) and involved an investment of 170 billion dollars.

The short history of the covid-19 vaccine began on December 31, 2019, when health officials in Wuhan, China, reported 27 cases of unknown pneumonia. On the following January 8, it was reported that the cause was a new coronavirus. Two days later, its genomic sequence had already been made public. In February, several pharmaceutical companies launched vaccine projects. In China, the first were CanSino Biologics, Sinovac Biotech and the state company Sinopharm; in the United States, Moderna and Inovio Pharmaceuticals; in Europe, BioNTech, a German biotech company, developed a candidate that it would later share with Pfizer; a group from the University of Oxford created a vaccine that was joined by AstraZeneca; Janssen and Sanofi Pasteur also launched their own projects.

In mid-April it became known that the SinoVac Biotech vaccine was effective in monkeys. On the 20th of the same month, five companies were already testing their vaccines in clinical trials, and there were more than 70 candidates in preclinical development. In late July, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines, both based on messenger RNA, began efficacy trials. The Chinese projects, paradoxically, lost the lead due to the success with which the pandemic was contained in that country, which forced the recruitment of volunteers in others.

During the month of November, it was announced that a few vaccines were more than 90% effective. All the deadlines, from the appearance of pneumonia cases in December 2019 to the authorizations, by regulatory agencies, of the vaccines in December 2020, have been the shortest, by far, that there has ever been.

Since the outbreak of the disease was announced, thousands of scientists, biomedical and other areas, from around the world began to investigate issues related to covid-19, sharing information to a degree never seen before. Cooperation has been produced, for the most part, by making use of informal networks, without the need for formal agreements between countries or institutions.

The results of this research activity have been reflected in the publication, until the beginning of December, of 84,180 scientific articles related to the covid-19 (at a rate of 260 daily).

To give this figure the meaning it deserves, let’s make a comparison: the total number of those published since scientific journals on lung cancer have existed is approximately 350,000; AIDS-HIV, 165,000; flu, 135,000; and 100,000 on malaria. In just eleven months, a volume of articles on covid-19 has been published equivalent to almost 60% of all articles published on influenza.

The number of signatories (unique authors) of the articles on covid-19 amounts to 322,279, a figure that triples in just 11 months that of the participants in the Manhattan project after five years. If we limit ourselves to those who have been involved in the development of vaccines, and since there are currently 162 candidates (of which 52 are in clinical trials), a conservative estimate gives a number of 65,000 participants (scientific and health personnel ) worldwide, which is equivalent to half of all personnel involved in the Manhattan project.

The economic effort has also been enormous. The US administration alone has allocated more than 10 billion dollars to pharmaceutical companies for the design and production of vaccines. If to that amount we add the resources invested by China, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union, the total amount would perhaps approximate the investment made in the Manhattan project, although only 10% of that was destined to design and production of weapons.

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