PORTLAND, Ore — Most vaccines take years, even decades to develop, so how did we get multiple COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of months?
One of the biggest misconceptions about the coronavirus vaccines is that their development started with the current pandemic. In reality, scientists had a head start and that’s because COVID-19 comes from a family of viruses. Both the SARS coronavirus of 2002 and the MERS coronavirus of 2012 taught scientists a lot about the current pandemic.
Many of the researchers who developed the COVID-19 vaccines have previously studied those similar viruses so they already knew a lot about what works and doesn't work.
During that research, scientists learned how this family of viruses behaves — their biology and the so-called "spike protein." That spike protein allows a portion of the virus to enter our cells and trigger an immune response.
When the pandemic hit, scientists already knew that if a person had antibodies that could recognize the spike protein, this could stop the virus from infecting them — that’s the key to both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
Both vaccines use messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, to construct the coronavirus spike protein. Once that happens the immune system rushes in to defend against the protein and you build an immunity to the virus.