One of the most important learnings from COVID-19 – rediscovering the value of vaccines

The world is coming round again to the understanding that, now more than ever, vaccines play a crucial role in public health and that, with economies crumbling under the stress of the pandemic, vaccines are our most cost-effective and successful public health intervention.

The current public health emergency has put enormous pressure on developing a vaccine. There is growing optimism that a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 can get to market as early as 2021. While everyone is wishing for quick results on COVID-19, it must be remembered that this short timeline is most definitely not the norm. Rather this is a process from research and development, clinical trials and manufacturing of vaccines which is complex, and requires the utmost care.

Vaccines, much like regular medicines, take between 12 and 15 years to be developed and get to market. From the early stages of research to having the vaccine on the pharmacy shelves, takes time and considerable investment of resources on a societal scale. That’s why it is heartening that during this current pandemic, as it happened with the most important previous ones, such as Ebola, all kinds of public and private organisations, Health Authorities and Governments realise the urgent need to work together and across borders.

In addition, to the complexities of research and development, vaccines also require a quite complex manufacturing process. The production of one batch (from the start of the manufacturing until the release by the manufacturer) takes between 18 and 24 months. For very complex, multivalent vaccines, the production of one lot can take up to 48 months! Only a very few exceptions have a slightly shorter production lead time ranging from 12 to 18 months.

All of this demonstrates the challenge in front of us. We need to telescope something that usually takes years to develop and up to 48 months to manufacture into a fraction of that time. As was the case with the Ebola virus, we are optimistic that our industry’s efforts will create new tools to combat this coronavirus. It is clear that this pandemic underscores the need for our industry and governments to continue to invest in research into the greatest health threats.

Taking a step back, we need to recognise that around €2 billion is annually spent on R&D by members of Vaccines Europe. Our industry is a strong economic and public health asset for the European Union if we also consider that 79% of vaccines are manufactured in factories based in Europe.

A clear lesson that has been learned from this pandemic is how important prevention is and that vaccines are a key element of this. Furthermore, by preventing the disease, vaccines create cost saving opportunities thus providing additional economic value for society (maintaining productivity with a positive fiscal impact), while improving individual and collective population health and helping to address antimicrobial resistance.

Let’s turn today’s emergency into setting the foundations for a revamped approach to prevention and vaccination to ensure that society can be better armed and better prepared for the future.

Because life in good health is never enough.