A Leading Research Center Explains How Vaccines – Including for COVID-19 – are Created and Tested

It’s one of the constant refrains the public has heard since the novel coronavirus emerged earlier this year: Developing a vaccine will take 12-18 months.

In a briefing for the National Press Foundation, two vaccines experts answered questions on that developmental process, explaining why it takes that long, what the different phases of development are, and how researchers balance safety and speed.

From the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Kathleen Neuzil and Dr. Wilbur Chen fielded questions from journalists worldwide, including those in the U.S., Hong Kong and South Africa. Neuzil is the center’s director and Chen an adult infectious disease expert.

As of the start of April, there are more than two dozen vaccines for coronavirus under development.  Human testing has begun on three. The vaccine development time has been greatly accelerated: What researchers hope will take just 18 months is substantially faster than normal.

“We’re thinking about trying to have a vaccine that’s licensable in about 18 months – that’s a really tremendous feat,” Chen told the journalists. “It’s achievable, and I think that it’s reasonable. We have to assume that it’s going to be successful through all of these different stages.”

Neuzil and the center have for decades focused on emerging infectious diseases, primarily in the developing world. They were also on the coronavirus case early, mobilizing in January to study the virus and test potential vaccines and other therapies. They are also involved in one of the earliest coronavirus vaccine trials –still one to two years from scheduled completion off. (More details on the trial, led by the National Institutes of Health, here.)

“We hope there will be more – and ideally many more – in the coming months,” Neuzil said of the global trials.

Neuzil explained how the effort was able to move so quickly into human testing.

“Please be assured that there was no compromise and that there is never any compromise on safety and on the processes that we follow for vaccine development,” she said. “The reason we were able to get into trials so quickly is because this vaccine was modeled on other vaccines – for influenza, for Zika – using the same manufacturing processes, using the same technology, but just substituting the genetic code” for the novel coronavirus.


This program is funded by GlaxoSmithKline LLC. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Wilbur Chen
Chief of Adult Clinical Studies, Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health 
Kathleen Neuzil
Director, Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine
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