Eric Topol on the Pandemic Year: The Hyper-Acceleration of the Life Sciences

Developing a Covid vaccine in record time shows how medical research can rev up to fight other diseases.

In less than a year, we went from Covid-19 patient zero to several effective, thoroughly tested vaccines. In my career as a physician-scientist, I have never seen science and medical research move at this pace. For 21 successful vaccine development programs in the past decade, it took an average of eight years, and that doesn’t even take into account the many programs that have gone on for decades but have failed to produce a vaccine, including for HIV, CMV, malaria, TB, Zika and Dengue fever. For a broader sense of the achievement with Covid vaccines, consider that the average time in the life sciences for translating research into clinical practice is 17 years.

To respond to the pandemic with such remarkable velocity, the global biomedical research community shifted its full attention to several key tasks: understanding the virus, its structural and cellular biology and mutations, and our immune response to it; identifying and testing repurposed drugs in clinical trials; developing potent monoclonal antibodies that could rapidly inactivate the virus; and determining risk factors and best practices in patient care that reduced mortality and morbidity. And all of this was concurrent with the vaccine programs proceeding in high gear.

The number of Covid-related research publications posted on preprint servers and in peer-review journals rapidly accumulated to tens of thousands. The most highly revered life science journals shortened their review process from many months to days. Regulatory review of vaccines at the FDA was shortened from 1 year on average to 3 weeks, providing yet another dimension of how time was compressed.

This hyper-acceleration of life-science research is a welcome change, demonstrating the will and capacity to rev up when the stakes are enormously high. Now that we know what is achievable, much of this experience could potentially be used to expedite the translation of other post-pandemic research into medical care. We yearn for major advances in the prevention of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and many other conditions that take a huge toll in deaths and loss of quality of life.

But one essential point deserves emphasis: The successful mRNA vaccines that set such a high bar of efficacy and safety so early in the pandemic were not conceived in 2020. The use of mRNA was pioneered in the basic research of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania three decades ago. It is this investment in fundamental research that paid big dividends at a time of dire need.

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