What it takes to develop and deliver a COVID-19 vaccine – and what this means for the long-term management of this disease and others

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), more than three years after it began. This news marked a major milestone. COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are at their lowest levels worldwide, and there is a high level of immunity among the population, in large part due to the use of safe and effective vaccines which were developed and delivered in record time. 

Yet, we can’t let our guard down. WHO and global health authorities have cautioned that COVID will remain an ongoing public health issue and the world must now transition towards long-term management of the disease. Policymakers are also very focused on applying lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to bolster future responses to other emerging infectious diseases.

So, how are we going to effectively accomplish these goals in Europe? Here are 3 ways. 

1. Foster the innovation ecosystem 

The unprecedented speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were advanced from ‘bench to bedside’ belies the fact that these biologics are incredibly complex to develop and manufacture. While important steps, such as at-risk manufacturing, accelerated regulatory reviews, and public-private partnerships contributed to the shorter timeline, the most important factor was the preexistence of a robust ecosystem of small and large biopharmaceutical companies focused on vaccine innovation. The companies that successfully delivered pandemic vaccines didn’t start from scratch. 

Early in 2020, Novavax began working on a SARS-CoV2 vaccine candidate, benefiting from years of work our researchers had put in to develop, refine, and perfect the foundation on which our protein-based COVID-19 vaccine is built. Within 2 years, our COVID-19 vaccine had been authorized for use in over 40 countries. 

Looking forward, Europe needs a dynamic and well-funded research and development (R&D) ecosystem. Governments should continue to invest in public health infrastructure, skilled workforces, and early-stage research for medical countermeasures that can be advanced through commercialization by industry. The ecosystem also requires a strong intellectual property framework to support partnerships and private sector investments in R&D and capacity building.

2. Bolster European supply chains while supporting free movement of goods globally

From mid-2020 onwards, there were significant constraints on supplies, raw materials, and facilities with vaccine manufacturing capabilities. The biopharmaceutical industry engaged in extensive partnerships and technology transfers to meet the challenge. For Novavax, this meant leveraging our manufacturing presence in Sweden and investing in a state-of-the-art facility in the Czech Republic, as well as establishing partnerships with organizations in a number of EU countries.   

Looking ahead, we – industry and policymakers alike – need to pursue collaborative solutions to ensure that all of this extensive EU manufacturing capacity can be maintained. Europe’s attractiveness as a place for manufacturing relies on its openness – being a key strategic link in a wider, global supply chain, underpinned by the free movement of goods and supplies across borders.

3. Maintain a competitive vaccine market through product diversity

And finally, the long-term management of COVID relies upon maintaining a competitive vaccine market allowing a plurality of technologies and manufacturers. It is vital that the EU has a strong, diverse vaccine portfolio that includes multiple vaccine platforms to ensure the broadest access to and uptake of vaccines. This will allow citizens to access the vaccines most suited to their needs, help governments to ensure cost-effectiveness, and mitigate any potential supply chain risks.

At a personal and professional level, I am proud and privileged to be part of a group of people that continues to deliver vaccines to support public health. This is true across my entire organization, but particularly relevant is the work of our researchers, scientists, and other highly skilled experts – these people have proven that they can innovate.

Crucially, the creation and delivery of effective COVID vaccines that protect the public is made possible by policy decisions that support the entire vaccine ecosystem, bolster Europe’s supply chains, and maintain a competitive market. 

Ultimately, this approach – taking onboard all three lessons learned – is essential to put Europe in the driver’s seat towards improved public health.

Kelly Cappio
Kelly Cappio

Vice President, Policy & Government Affairs, Novavax
Board Member, Vaccines Europe