Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Axios on your phone

Get breaking news and scoops on the go with the Axios app.

Download for free.

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

By the numbers: As the first COVID-19 vaccines near emergency authorization, it's worth reflecting on just how fast their development has been.

  • Vaccines usually take more than 10 years to go from discovery to regulatory approval, and the fastest on record was four years, for the mumps.
  • The world now has three vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — ready for regulatory approval just one year after what are believed to be the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China.

How it works: The COVID-19 vaccines progressed so swiftly because they were built using a new platform: gene-based technology that harnesses messenger RNA (mRNA) to essentially instruct the human body to make the vaccine itself.

  • Conventional vaccines use either a weakened virus or purified signature viral proteins to prompt the body to safely generate immunity. That's effective, but the act of growing the attenuated virus or purifying the proteins is slow and laborious.
  • mRNA vaccines, by contrast, can be developed almost as quickly as a virus can be genetically sequenced — Moderna shipped the first batch of its vaccine for clinical study a month and a half after Chinese authorities shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus.

What they're saying: "It could be quite a new era for vaccines and vaccinology," Brendan Wren, a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told USA Today. "We seemed to move ahead in this one year 10 years."

What's next: As mRNA technology improves, so should the speed at which new vaccines can be developed and rolled out, which would be hugely beneficial when the inevitable next pandemic hits.

Our thought bubble: The COVID-19 vaccine represents technological innovation at its best, in that it can save us from ourselves.

  • The ability to rapidly develop a vaccine for every new disease would relieve human beings of the need to make social distancing tradeoffs they can't seem to make.

Scientists are also hopeful that mRNA and other gene-based platforms could improve mediocre existing vaccines like the perennially underwhelming flu shot and give researchers a new approach for challenging viruses like HIV.

  • Pharma companies are even exploring whether the technology could yield treatments for heart disease and cancer, which between them kill more than 1.2 million Americans a year.

Yes, but: While both the effectiveness and the safety data of the COVID-19 vaccines have been sterling — albeit with some questions around AstraZeneca's candidate — mRNA vaccines have never been used before, and we won't know for sure how well they work until they go to work.

  • Distributing vaccines to just about everyone on the globe has also never been attempted before, and unfortunately there's no gene-based shortcut for the hard work of logistics.

The bottom line: The proof will be in the shots themselves, but right now it looks like finding a new and better way of making vaccines will be one of the few good things to come out of our plague year.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

J&J says its one-shot vaccine is 66% effective against moderate to severe COVID

Photo: Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot coronavirus vaccine was 66% effective in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 disease in Phase 3 trials, which was comprised of nearly 44,000 participants across eight countries.

Between the lines: The vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S., but only 57% effective in South Africa, where a more contagious variant has been spreading. It prevented 85% of severe infections and 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the company.

Jan 29, 2021 - World

EU grants conditional approval of AstraZeneca vaccine

Photo: Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The European Commission on Friday granted conditional approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for people 18 years and older.

Why it matters: This is the third vaccine to receive approval from the commission, coming hours after the Emergency Medicines Agency recommended its authorization.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.