Big Pharma’s traditional playbook for developing medicines required years of data collection and trials before a treatment began its life saving tenure. But drugmakers last year pulled off the onceunthinkable feat of developing a vaccine against Covid-19 in less than a year. Now they’re racing even faster to adapt those shots to protect against the new omicron variant in as little as six weeks. While it may take almost that long to determine if new vaccines are truly needed to deal with the coronavirus’s latest iteration, waiting simply isn’t an option.
This is the scramble that Covid has created. The virus is so destructive that drugmakers have started scientific work to adapt vaccines before it’s even clear the changes will be necessary. The pandemic has allowed pharma giants to leverage mRNA and other new technologies to dramatically speed up research and development. They’re now faced with having to speed things up yet again to contend with the onslaught of variants.
“We have been preparing for a moment like that for months,” Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer Inc., said of the emergence of omicron in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “I feel comfortable that the playbook will work.”
Pfizer started working on a vaccine tailored to stop omicron on Nov. 26, immediately after it was identified. Rival Moderna Inc. mobilized its employees a day earlier—on Thanksgiving Day—to do the same. One reason the two companies can move so quickly is that their mRNA vaccines don’t require growing viruses or proteins in live cells as do traditional vaccine technologies. All that scientists actually need to build an mRNA vaccine is the sequence of a given virus.
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