Rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines



In the waning months of 2019, a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 started spreading rapidly in China’s Wuhan province. Soon, the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, would begin infecting people around the world. As the pandemic progressed and governments curtailed many activities to keep people safe, scientists hurried to use the virus’ sequenced genome and years of prior research on other coronaviruses to develop a vaccine that would reduce the risk of infection, severe illness, and death.


A team of IRP researchers at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), led by IRP senior investigator Barney Graham, M.D., Ph.D., and VRC research fellow Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., along with their collaborators, designed a modified, more stable version of the spike protein that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to infect cells. The team then collaborated with Moderna Therapeutics to use the spike protein they designed to create a vaccine that uses genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA) to instruct the body’s cells to manufacture the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. By doing so, the vaccine helps the immune system learn to recognize the spike protein and defend the body from SARS-CoV-2 infection. Consequently, people who receive the vaccine can gain protection from the virus and its harmful effects in a much safer manner than being exposed to the virus itself. In initial clinical trials, the vaccine proved to be safe and highly effective at stimulating an immune response against the spike protein, and further studies showed that people who received two doses of the vaccine were less likely to experience severe symptoms or die from COVID-19.


The NIH-Moderna COVID-19 vaccine received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on December 18, 2020, just one week after an EUA was given for another vaccine developed by Pfizer that utilized the same spike protein modifications developed by the IRP researchers. A third vaccine, developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, was also based on the IRP’s spike protein modifications. Since the EUAs were issued, billions of people around the world have received one of those three vaccines. The combination of a worldwide vaccination campaign and public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing helped to curtail the spread of the virus and undoubtedly saved countless lives.


Corbett KS, Edwards DK, Leist SR et al. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine design enabled by protoype pathogen preparedness. Nature. Oct;586(7830):567-571. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2622-0.

Corbett KS, Flynn B, Foulds KE et al. (2020). Evaluation of the mRNA-1273 Vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 in Nonhuman Primates. N Engl J Med. Oct 15;383(16):1544-1555. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa2024671.

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This page was last updated on Thursday, June 8, 2023