Investing in science led to record vaccines

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COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time. How did this happen?

In early 2020, very few people were optimistic that a vaccine against COVID-19 would be available soon, and surely not within the year. After all, as a Lancet article points out, it takes 10 years on average to develop a vaccine.

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But, in a stunning turnaround, a British grandmother became the first person in the world to be inoculated against the virus on Dec. 8, 2020. Since then, other pharmaceutical firms have begun rolling out their version of the vaccine.

The detailed account of how those vaccines were rapidly developed will be told at some point later. For now, one thing we must not miss is how investing in scientific research paved the way for this quick development of an antidote to the COVID-19 virus.

According to an article by Philip Ball (2020) in the journal Nature, the three factors that led to the record-breaking release of the COVID-19 vaccines are the years of previous research on related viruses, enormous funding, and regulators moving more quickly than usual. The history of research that underpins the corona vaccine is fascinating and reads like a sci-fi thriller. Unlike traditional vaccines, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna versions are based on an mRNA platform. The Nature article says that the basic research on DNA vaccines began at least 25 years ago, and RNA vaccines have benefited from 10 to 15 years of robust research.

I highlight this story to show that purposive investments in research over the long term pay off handsomely. Conversely, a society that fails to appreciate and support scientific enterprises will reap the sad consequences of stunted development and even loss of life.

Given this, it is chastening to reflect that the budget of the Philippines for research and development (R&D) has been stagnant over the years. While our Asean neighbors are pouring around one percent of their GDP to R&D, we allocate 0.15 percent! Consequently, our policy and development discourse is often riddled with anecdotal accounts and emotional arguments instead of being based on solid empirical data.

Today, we face unprecedented challenges that are spawned by our planet’s mismanagement—the climate emergency, waste management, loss of biodiversity, and many others. Mere bluster will not make these problems go away. We need to generate empirical information and develop appropriate technologies to capacitate our people and institutions to survive, and even prosper, amid such daunting challenges.

May the pandemic galvanize us to prioritize our R&D sector. The scientific community working in concert with policymakers, local communities, and the private sector is vital to our prosperity as a nation.

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Dr. Rodel D. Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) of the Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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