Vaccines have played a critical role in reducing the spread of, and in some cases, eliminating the threat of many devastating infectious diseases. They are often cited as second only to clean drinking water in leading to some of the most impactful public health advances in history, including the eradication of smallpox globally and measles, rubella and polio in the U.S. Vaccine development has further advanced the study of human health including our understanding of human beings’ own immune system.
As we have seen just over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are lifesaving. Already, one study published focusing on the impact of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., has shown they have prevented nearly 140,000 deaths and 3 million cases of COVID-19 by the second week of May 2021 alone. Thanks to biopharmaceutical innovation, today we have one FDA approved vaccine for prevention against COVID-19 in patients 16 years and older and several others authorized for emergency use for ages 12 and above and additional clinical trials are underway for younger populations.
Advancements in vaccine development go far beyond infectious disease though. Biopharmaceutical scientists are also working to advance the development of therapeutic vaccines that have the potential to address cancers. Therapeutic vaccines are designed to treat diseases by provoking a targeted immune response against an existing disease rather than offering lasting protection against infection as traditional vaccines do. In cancer treatment for instance, scientists are opening new avenues for immunotherapy where therapeutic vaccines are showing promise in boosting the immune system or helping the immune system recognize cancer cells. While not a treatment for cancer, other vaccines target human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause certain cancers, such as cervical cancer.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting patients across the globe, heightened by the highly contagious Delta-variant, understanding the critical public health importance and value of vaccines is more important than ever. This August, in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, we are reflecting on the significant value that vaccines have for society.
To understand how effective immunizations can be to the future of public health, it is important to recognize how they work and how they have helped us in the past.
The goal of preventative vaccines is to help the body develop and maintain immunity to a disease by imitating an infection. In other words, vaccines are teaching the immune system how to identify and target microbial invaders (such as viruses and bacteria) without causing an infection. The public health success of these vaccines is enormous.
Sixteen diseases are now largely preventable as a result of childhood vaccines, including measles, polio, mumps and pertussis, and HPV infection, among others. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that among children born between 1994 and 2018 in the U.S., routine childhood vaccinations prevented 419 million illnesses, 26.8 million hospitalizations, and 936,000 premature deaths – resulting in $406 billion in direct medical cost savings and $1.9 trillion in total societal cost savings.
Looking to the Future with Innovative Vaccines
Today, biopharmaceutical companies are working with stakeholders across the research and development (R&D) ecosystem to develop new ways of preventing and treating illnesses with innovative vaccines. These vaccines offer significant hope for the future, with many in the pipeline using new technologies that have the potential to prevent the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), protect against malaria and even therapeutic vaccines which could treat several types of cancer.
Among the nearly 260 vaccines in development are:
- 108 vaccines for cancer, including a therapeutic vaccine for non-small cell lung cancer, which uses messenger RNA to mobilize the patient’s own immune system to fight the tumor(s)
- 14 for allergies including therapeutic vaccines
- 2 vaccines for Alzheimer’s disease, including one therapeutic vaccine that targets beta-amyloid protein, which is associated with the development of the neurological disorder
Combatting COVID-19 with Vaccines
As of August, more than 4 billion doses of vaccines have been distributed globally, and it is estimated that vaccine manufacturers will produce up to 11 billion doses by the end of 2021. Patient safety remains at the heart of vaccine R&D, and safety monitoring of vaccines continues after licensure, including for COVID-19 vaccines. The biopharmaceutical industry is monitoring new developments in the spread of COVID-19 and continuing to research, develop and innovate in response to new variants.
This August is a moment to celebrate the historical significance of immunizations for public health and the unprecedented achievement of the COVID-19 vaccines supported by America’s robust health care ecosystem. Moving forward, we all must do our part to keep our communities safe by getting vaccinated and encouraging others to do so as well.
For more information about the biopharmaceutical industry’s developments on vaccines, please visit phrma.org/Media/New-Era-of-Medicine-Vaccines.