Director of Communications and Advocacy, Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association
The story of modern vaccines began in Europe when, in 1796, the English physician, Edward Jenner, carried out the world’s first controlled vaccination against smallpox. Later, in 1885, the French chemist, Louis Pasteur, would discover a vaccine for rabies. He is credited with laying the foundation for preventative medicine
COVID-19 has mainstreamed vaccines in public discourse. It joins about a dozen other diseases, including measles, meningitis and whooping cough, that we vaccinate against in Ireland.
Globally, vaccines prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases. Vaccines have ridded the world of smallpox, driven polio to the brink of eradication, and virtually eliminated measles, diphtheria and rubella in many parts of the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that vaccines save up to three million lives annually. With the exception of clean drinking water, vaccination is among the best public health interventions ever.
A vaccine is a biological tool designed to prompt an immune response against an invading microorganism. Traditionally, vaccines are created using compromised forms of a virus. When the body is exposed to the vaccine, it is programmed to recognise the actual virus and fight it.
Technology is disrupting traditional vaccine discovery routes. For COVID-19, two types of vaccines are in use – mRNA and viral vector. mRNA, used by Pfizer and Moderna, teaches the body to make a protein that will trigger an immune response without using a live virus. Viral vectors, used by Janssen and Astra Zeneca, deploy a harmless virus as a delivery system with instructions for the body’s cells. Both vaccine types prompt the body to make antibodies that fight COVID-19.
Like with treatments, safety is key for vaccines. Clinical trials must demonstrate that a vaccine is safe and effective before it is used in the community. Vaccines take time to develop – usually years, if not decades. On average, it takes between 12 and 36 months to manufacture one. Complex multivalent vaccines can have production lead times of more than 36 months. Quality controls can take up to 70% of the full manufacturing period.
For COVID-19, breakthroughs happened in record time, super-charged by unprecedented global collaboration, already-laid research groundwork, and parallel production and regulatory processes that maintained safety and quality standards.
Every year, over 1.7 billion vaccines are produced at 27 manufacturing sites in 11 European countries, including Ireland. Europe has about a dozen vaccine research sites, leading to the discovery of next-generation vaccines for unmet medical needs and healthcare emergencies. More than 122,000 people work in Europe’s vaccines industry.
New vaccines are in development all the time. For example, industry and governments have long sought a vaccine for malaria, a disease that infects up to 600 million people annually and kills 400,000, mostly children. A new malaria vaccine has recently been found to be 77% effective against the disease.
Vaccines are a success story in global health. Let us continue to innovate for new vaccines so that we can stay a step ahead of disease.