Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Everything Must Go Right for Big Pharma’s Bet on a Fast Vaccine

Scientists are trying to cram 10 to 15 years of meticulous testing and careful lab work into a quick fix.

relates to Everything Must Go Right for Big Pharma’s Bet on a Fast Vaccine
Illustration: Charlotte Pollet for Bloomberg Businessweek

Much about the coronavirus has defied belief—the speed at which it has spread around the world, the insidious way it penetrates the lungs, the unexpected impact it’s having on young people in some parts of the world while sparing them elsewhere. The most effective way to stop it would be to vaccinate the global population. For that to happen in the next year or so, an almost equally implausible set of circumstances has to occur: flawless scientific execution, breakneck trials, and a military-style manufacturing mobilization unlike any the pharmaceutical industry has put in place before. Normally it takes 10 or 15 years of careful lab work and meticulous testing to bring a totally new vaccine to market. For the coronavirus, the drug industry hopes to compress this time frame by tenfold.

This may sound like mission impossible, but Big Pharma wouldn’t be working this hard if it didn’t think it had a shot at pulling it off. Already, Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech Moderna Inc., a company that’s never launched a product, has started human trials of a vaccine harnessing a brand-new type of RNA technology to protect against coronavirus. Drug giant Pfizer Inc., with German partner BioNTech SE, is working on a vaccine with a similar new technology, while Johnson & Johnson is building off a template for its experimental Zika and Ebola vaccines. French drugmaker Sanofi is adapting technology used for manufacturing its flu shots to see if it will protect against the coronavirus.