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Lessons learned from the Covid vaccine development process

Posted on August 23rd, 2021 by in COVID-19

As the world’s focus has turned to getting the COVID-19 vaccines out as widely and rapidly as possible, it’s easy to almost forget about the incredible global effort that developed them in record time. But it is important to take some time to reflect on the process that got us here, so that we can learn from it and celebrate the amazing researchers whose work is now saving so many lives.

Recently, BioNTech Co-Founder and CEO Uğur Şahin, MD spoke about the challenges that had to be overcome in developing the mRNA vaccines. His talk was followed by a panel discussion that featured Prof. Özlem Türeci, MD, Co-Founder and CMO of BioNTech; Dr. Ivan Đikić, Professor of Biochemistry at Goethe University; and moderated by Richard Horton, FRCP FMedSci, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet.

Prof. Şahin explained that a major lesson from the COVID-19 vaccine development push was that “you can do things faster if everyone is on board and everyone accepts that there is a huge medical need and we need to work together. So it’s about international collaboration — but it is also about not taking any shortcuts. You can be faster without taking shortcuts.”

Exploring a new landscape

Prof. Türeci emphasized the importance of being prepared for failures and to “accept that the very nature of innovation is that you have to enter unknown territory and you have to navigate it. And that will come with unexpected situations, and not every attempt to solve a problem will be the final solution.”

She noted that, along with their teams, she and Prof. Şahin had been steeped in the innovation process for the last three decades, which means they have had plenty of experience encountering unknowns. “Our entire mode of action is that we move forward, ready to face the hurdles and technical problems and challenges which are thrown our way as they come,” she said. “And we trust that our team, and our partners, would be able to do that.”

This made them well-prepared for the high-intensity Covid vaccine development process where, as Prof. Türeci puts it, the sequence was “ready, shoot, aim, and not ready, aim, shoot — meaning, explore a bit, and then react to the ripple effects we were generating.”

Speed without sacrificing accuracy

Prof. Şahin marveled at the scientific community’s ability to combine speed and accuracy, sharing new data very quickly – but also pointed out that the system would also correct itself right away if there was a problem.

“For example, I read a paper which said that the receptor for this virus is upregulated in a certain population,” he said. “Two days later, another paper came out and said, no, we are not able to confirm that. And a few days later, a third paper came out and said we are also unable to confirm that.” As intense as the effort was, there was a culture of accountability that ensured that everyone remained focused on getting things right.

Elsevier contributes timely information and insights

Prof. Şahin also had kind words for Elsevier’s role in the process. “I would like to thank Elsevier for the fantastic work that your team is doing. One of the key reasons why we have started and pivoted our cancer research to infectious disease vaccine was a paper that I had read in The Lancet. The paper was fantastic, timely and provided a clear guidance that this infection had all features to become a global pandemic.”

He commended Elsevier’s Coronavirus Research Hub as well. “In the weeks thereafter, you had created this wonderful COVID website. I was [there] two or three times a day in the morning and in the late afternoon and before sleeping to see what kind of news was there. This was really great work.”

He continued, “I was amazed … how fast these papers were edited. And particularly also the graphics visualizing, for example, how infections are distributed and so on. So congratulations to your team. This team was part of the solution for this pandemic.”

Prof. Türeci also added her appreciation. “I can’t agree more,” she said, noting the important matter of trust among the research community. “Trust requires transparency and information, and every entity which contributes to that is an important part in this process. So please keep up the good work.”

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