How vaccines are researched and developed

The UK has a longstanding reputation for cutting-edge research and development into vaccines. Investment by the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in a broad range of vaccines.

Video transcript

The UK has a long-standing reputation for world leading research into life sciences medicine.


Recent developments in basic science mean we understand diseases better than we've ever done before.


Developments such as in genomics, helping us to spot how diseases such as cancer, affect different patients differently, and they're giving us new clues as to how to develop effective new medicines.


The first step in discovering a new medicine is to identify the target, maybe a cell receptor or an enzyme or a gene that's involved in the disease process.


The next challenge is to find something that affects that target to interfere with or prevent the disease or the development of symptoms.


We sometimes have to test tens of thousands of molecules, either through computer modelling or in the test tube, or in cell culture or in animals to identify a few that are safe and effective enough to take forward to trial in patients.


The biopharmaceutical industry invests more than anyone else in research and development, and new science is becoming more and more precise.


Despite the fact that failure rates are still high we're learning about diseases, all the time and when we do have successes, we're bringing improvements to the lives of millions of patients around the world.

How are medicines and vaccines discovered?

Dr Bryan Deane talks us through how the process of researching and developing a new medicine gets started.

Today, the UK vaccinates against 15 diseases in its routine national immunisation program and against a further 5 diseases selectively to those most at risk or travellers.[1],[2],[3]

1. Vaccine R&D can be a long and risky journey

Finding a new vaccine begins with understanding the structure of the virus or bacterium and how it causes the infection which are you are trying to prevent. Vaccines contain a harmless form of the bacteria or virus that causes the disease.

This means the bacteria or virus will be killed, greatly weakened, or broken down into small parts before being used to trigger an immune response in the person receiving the vaccine but without making them ill.

Carefully working out how to do this and selecting appropriate technologies happens in pre-clinical testing. It is then a case of thoroughly testing a vaccine through clinical trials to make sure it’s effective and safe to use.

Historically, developing a new vaccine has required.

10 years of research for each successful vaccine
10 years of research for each successful vaccine
£374 million - £1.5 billion cost of development
£374 million - £1.5 billion cost of development
£448 million cost of building a biological manufacturing site
£448 million cost of building a biological manufacturing site
70% of production dedicated to quality control
70% of production dedicated to quality control
6% probability of market entry from preclinical
6% probability of market entry from preclinical
12-18 months for first regulatory approval
12-18 months for first regulatory approval
24 months to manufacture
24 months to manufacture
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2. But new technology is helping us speed that process up

Sustained investment and effective introduction of new technologies are essential to enable vaccine-preventable diseases to be controlled, eliminated and potentially eradicated.

By using advances in genetic sequencing for the viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, companies have managed to speed up vaccine R&D.

New technologies like artificial intelligence are helping to make the development of vaccines quicker.

Where similar diseases have appeared around the world, the research can increasingly be translated into research for vaccines against similar strains.

3. Pharmaceutical companies need to make rigorous decision about what they research

Developing vaccines takes deep scientific knowledge and expertise. Pharmaceutical companies need to make decisions about what research they’re going to invest in and generally look at four questions

What value will it provided patients? They need to make sure the new vaccine establishes a new standard of care which has the potential to significantly extend and improve patient lives.

What value will be provided to health care systems? They aim to reduce the costs associated with hospitalisation and other costly complications of disease if not appropriately (or optimally) treated.

What is the unmet need? They need to make sure any new vaccine addresses a critically unmet medical need, where few or no treatments exists.

What is the R&D sustainability? What will continued investment in risky and capital-intensive R&D come up with, and is this a sufficiently important breakthrough?

4. Pharmaceutical companies are working in collaboration to develop new vaccines

When the global community works together, we can dramatically advance the development and delivery of vaccines. The pharmaceutical industry and the public sector, academia and non-governmental organisations have a long history of working together to research vaccines and to develop and manufacture them at scale.

The UK has a thriving ecosystem of public-private collaborations helping to push back the boundaries of science and find new vaccines.

ABPI member companies are working with the UK Vaccine Network on vaccines and technologies for infectious diseases with the potential to cause an epidemic.8

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References and further links

Vaccine development stats

  • +10 years of R&D for each successful vaccine1
  • 12-18 months for first regulatory approva2
  • 24 months to manufacture3
  • 70% of production dedicated to quality control1
  • 6% probability of market entry from preclinical1
  • £374 million-£1.5 billion GBP cost of development4
  • £485 million cost of building a biological manufacturing site1

Page references

1 IFPMA. Innovation for a healthier world 2015. Accessible at: Last accessed April 2020. Values converted from USD at prevailing exchange rate on 8/4/20

2 Vaccines Europe. The EU vaccine industry in Figures. 2015. Available at: Last accessed June 2018

3 Plotkin S et al. The complexity of vaccine manufacturing - an overview. Vaccine 2017;35;4064-4071

4 O’Neill J. Vaccines and alternative approaches; reducing our dependence on antimicrobials. February 2016. Available at: Last accessed May 2024

Last modified: 08 May 2024

Last reviewed: 08 May 2024