COVID-19 accelerates research, opens doors to new breakthroughs

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Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 11:39 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Doctors say the speed in which the coronavirus vaccine was produced is nothing short of a medical miracle. What normally can take decades, was rolled out in less than a year because of modern science, funding, and a collaboration of scientists around the world.

“I think it’s been an absolute triumph of science,” said Dr. Michael Roshon, chief of medical staff at Penrose-St. Francis, of vaccine development and improvements in COVID-19 treatments. “I think it’s been one of the most collaborative efforts globally. The whole world, every scientist working on it, every scientist sharing their data as soon as they get it, that informs other scientists to be able to do other experiments. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

The first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was January 21, 2020. The Pfizer vaccine was approved by the FDA just under 11 months later on Dec. 11, 2020. Moderna received emergency use authorization a week after that, and Johnson and Johnson was authorized in February 2021.

“I think the vaccine really is a modern, medical miracle. I mean, no shortcuts were made for the development of vaccines and to bring a vaccine to market that’s safe and effective in levels that all the studies show, is truly a medical miracle,” said Dr. Robert Lam, emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

It typically takes 15 to 20 years and a billion dollars to develop a vaccine, according to Roshon.

The fastest vaccine the U.S. has ever been able to produce is the mumps vaccine, in 1967, which took about four years. The COVID-19 vaccine took a quarter of the time.

COVID-19 vaccine proves to be speediest vaccine ever created, causing awe for some and concern for others

According to the CDC, more than 76 million doses of COVID vaccines were administered in the U.S. from December 14 to March 1 -- some with no side effects, most with side effects of a sore arm, and mild flu symptoms. The CDC says a severe allergic reaction is extremely rare. Yet some Americans remain skeptical of the vaccine.

Roshon understands why people would be concerned about getting a vaccine developed in a year but says people need to weigh their risks and benefits.

“If you’re one of the people who is very likely to get sick from the coronavirus, you need to really consider getting the vaccine. It’s the right thing to do, in my opinion, and the opinion of every other physician that I’ve talked to,” Roshon said.

Medical experts and state and national leaders continue to urge people to get the vaccine in order to slow the spread of the virus and save lives, as social media companies work to fight misinformation.

“Was it done haphazard, too fast, without the normal safety controls? I can say unequivocally the answer to that is, ‘No.’ It was done quickly for one reason: money,” Roshon said. “None of the safety concerns were swept under the rug. All of the standard protocols were followed. It was just followed way faster because there was a lot more money available to do it.”

Doctors applaud improvement in COVID-19 treatments leading to lower mortality rates

Many improvements were also made quickly in treatment of the novel coronavirus because of the urgency of the situation.

Doctors say at the beginning of the pandemic, they treated COVID-19 like other respiratory illnesses, where it was important to get people on ventilators. They realized quickly that ventilators, as well as certain drugs, may not be in the patients’ best interest.

“When you think about how we treated patients initially for COVID-19, we used to use medicines that we don’t use anymore. We used to use hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, and as we learn from the disease processes, we learned from the patients,” Lam said. “The way we’ve been able to bring down mortality for this disease process, that’s something I think we should be really proud of.”

According to a study published in Jama Internal Medicine, in the first six months of the pandemic, 94 percent of hospitals studied improved mortality rates by at least 25 percent. The study noted hospitals were able to improve outcomes when they had less cases to treat.

There’s hope that this quick progression of knowledge in fighting COVID-19, could lead to many more advances in the future, like how to better selectively turn the immune system down so it doesn’t cause damage to the body, how to more quickly develop fast and inexpensive tests for new diseases, and how to better fight sepsis. Sepsis is a life threatening response to many different infections including COVID-19, and according to the CDC, each year at least 1.7 million American adults develop it.

Those are just a few of the ideas Roshon has.

Dr. Lam says there will also be continued research on symptoms that seem to mysteriously stick around months after a patient has recovered from COVID-19.

One of the biggest successes of the pandemic has been the first use of an RNA-based vaccine. From Roshon’s view, the sky is the limit.

“What other diseases out there could we use it for? There are a lot of diseases we don’t have effective vaccines for -- HIV, malaria, tuberculosis. If we could stop that, take what we’ve learned so quickly in this year and use it to treat those other diseases, we’ll come out the other end of this much better,” he said.

The best time to prevent the next pandemic is now

While a lot is still uncertain, there is one thing experts say we can count on -- another pandemic.

According to the CDC, in about the past century, Americans have seen at least four pandemics, the H1N1 virus in 1918, the H2N2 virus in 1958, the H3N2 virus in 1968, and the H1N1 virus in 2009. The U.S. has also battled major outbreaks of diphtheria, polio, measles, and whooping cough.

“I don’t think it’s a question of ‘if’ there’s future pandemics. It’s a question of ‘when,’” Dr. Lam said. “I think that we were caught flat footed in some respects in terms of our response. And I think that (the coronavirus), for a while, really seemed pretty far away, didn’t it? ... But in the age of international air travel, we are in a time when we can’t expect that things will be isolated to one part of the country. Viruses don’t care what country you live in, they don’t care your socioeconomic status. They do what viruses do, they replicate.”

Roshon agrees, saying it’s critical to prepare by funding science, preparing public health infrastructure, and calling on every American to improve their health to make it harder for a virus to prey on them.

“If we don’t get ready for the next pandemic,” he said. “Then shame on us.”

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