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Yes, Covid vaccine was developed more rapidly than other vaccines, but doesn’t make it unsafe

A graphic shared on Facebook over 340,000 times lists 14 “viral pathogens” and how long it took to develop a vaccine against them from the date of their discovery.

The graphic is captioned, in Afrikaans: “Vir al die slim mense wat die vaccine vergelyk met oa die polio vaccine.” This translates to: “For all the smart people who compare the vaccine with, among others, the polio vaccine.” 

According to the graphic, the Covid-19 vaccine took only six months to develop while the polio vaccine took 45 years. The vaccine against influenza took the next-shortest amount of time after Covid-19, at 12 years.

We checked the dates in the graphic on the website History of Vaccines, which is maintained by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The information in the graphic about other diseases and vaccines is largely correct, but the post implies that the Covid-19 vaccine is unsafe because of how rapidly it was developed. 

Although 12 million people have already been vaccinated in South Africa, distrust of the vaccine and fear of its side effects is causing vaccine hesitancy

Are these fears valid?


First Covid vaccine approved full year after discovery of disease

Covid-19 was first reported by Chinese authorities on 31 December 2019 and by March the WHO had declared it a global pandemic.  

Exactly a year later on 31 December 2020, not six months later as the graphic claims, the first vaccine against Covid-19 was approved for emergency use by the WHO. This was the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech

Six vaccines have since been approved for use by the WHO. The most recent was the Sinovac vaccine on 1 June 2021. 

The post claims the speed of its development is why the US Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, can’t approve the Covid-19 vaccine – “Dis waarom die FDA nie die vaccine kan goedkeur nie”. The post says nobody knows what the long-term consequences of the vaccine will be and “dis waar die probleem lê”, or “that’s where the problem lies”.  

The FDA is the organisation that ensures the safety and efficacy of medical drugs in the US.

The graphic was posted on 4 August 2021. On 23 August, the FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the US. The Moderna vaccine has been approved for “emergency use” by the FDA since December 2020 and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine since March 2021.

Regulatory authorities in other countries, such as the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority or Sahpra, have also evaluated and approved vaccines for their countries. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines have all received approval by Sahpra. 

Africa Check has published fact-sheets on how vaccines are approved in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

How was the Covid-19 vaccine developed so quickly?

Previous vaccines, such as the polio vaccine, did take many years to be approved for human use. 

A WHO information sheet explains that this is in part because the various phases of vaccine development and testing are usually done step-by-step. 

But because of the urgent need for the Covid-19 vaccine and large-scale financial and political backing for it, some of these phases were able to be done at the same time. For example, some clinical trials evaluated multiple vaccines simultaneously.

Stil, strict clinical and safety standards were maintained so the trials remained rigorous.

Why do some viruses still not have a vaccine?

Some viruses listed in the graphic shared on Facebook, such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus which causes Aids, don't have a vaccine yet even though they were discovered before Covid-19.

A previous check by Africa Check explains why a vaccine for HIV – or for cancer or the common cold – has not yet been developed. This includes some of these diseases not having a single cause. Read it here

New messenger RNA technology sped things up

Another reason why the vaccine was developed quickly was the use of new technology: messenger RNA – or mRNA – vaccines

Traditional vaccines put an inactivated or weakened form of the virus into the body to trigger an immune response.  The immune system will then recognise the virus if a person is affected at a later stage. 

But mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response. “That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies,” says the US Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.

"The development of mRNA vaccines is faster as it bypasses the more laborious tasks of inactivating viruses or isolating proteins,” according to the WHO. 

But it’s important to note that while the development of the Covid mRNA vaccines may appear fast, it builds on decades of research into mRNA vaccines. The technology has been studied to prevent diseases such as flu, Zika and rabies. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine uses mRNA technology. 

What about the long-term effects of the vaccine?

Long-term assessment of the Covid-19 vaccines followed standard practice, says the WHO. This includes follow-ups with clinical trial participants, studies, and general monitoring of the vaccine, or pharmacovigilance

According to the CDC, long-term serious side effects of vaccines are “extremely unlikely”.

Because they usually happen within six weeks after the vaccine dose, “the FDA required each of the authorized Covid-19 vaccines to be studied for at least two months (eight weeks) after the final dose”. 

“Millions of people have received Covid-19 vaccines, and no long-term side effects have been detected,” says the CDC.

But the safety of Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be monitored.

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