Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time

Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time

Jennifer Haller layered a blue denim shirt over a gray tank top that morning, knowing she would later need to bare one shoulder. Her husband, always on her case about skipping breakfast, scrambled some eggs. The night before, she had read news online that the first person would get an experimental vaccine against the novel coronavirus at Kaiser Permanente in the morning. She wondered if that person might be her.

When she arrived at the research center, not far from Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, the whole world was standing by. It had been 75 days since news broke of unexplained cases of pneumonia seeming to emanate from a seafood market in Wuhan, China, and 66 days since scientists in the United States stared at the virus’s genetic code and vowed to conjure a vaccine to shut it down, at a record-shattering pace.

Doing so was a bet that, a few years ago, would have felt as audacious as sending a man to Mars. Vaccines took decades to develop. Their history was littered with missteps and disappointment. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine came only after 50 years of trial and error. Vaccines for HIV and Zika still elude scientists.

Now the country was in the grip of a disease that had infected 172,000 people, killed 6,700 and was accelerating unimpeded. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had quickly become the voice of the scientific community, was already predicting a vaccine within as little as a year, a projection many of his colleagues considered wildly optimistic. 

But Fauci knew something many did not. Members of his team at the National Institutes of Health and an affiliated biotech company had been preparing for years for just this moment, just this vaccine. The liquid about to go into Haller’s arm was the culmination of years of research by a handful of scientists who, by virtue of incredible luck and incredible foresight, were prepared for one virus more than almost any other: a coronavirus.

Had this virus come 10 years earlier – or even five – science would not have been ready. 

At the start of the pandemic, no one could have foreseen how controversial a COVID-19 vaccine would become – that the country would soon be stewing in anti-science and anti-vaccine sentiment, awash in misinformation and cleaved by mistrust.  

When Haller had answered a callout from a friend to “Fellow Humans” to participate in a 14-month medical trial, she’d barely blinked. The 43-year-old mom had stepped up because it was the right thing to do in an awful moment.

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