The UK has a longstanding reputation for vaccine development. The first vaccination ever developed was in the UK by Edward Jenner in 1796 for smallpox.1

The pharmaceutical industry undertakes a rigorous research and development programme for every vaccine before it is used.

The standard for testing and monitoring vaccines is higher than it is for most other medicines, because they are one of the few medical treatments given to healthy people.2

How are vaccines researched?

Finding a new vaccine begins with understanding the structure of the virus or bacteria and how it causes infection.

Vaccines generally contain a harmless form of the bacteria or virus that causes the disease. The bacteria or virus will be killed, greatly weakened, or broken down into small parts before being used to trigger an immune response without causing illness.

How are vaccines developed?

Once in development, vaccines take between 6 months and 3 years to manufacture. 70% of that time is due to quality control.3 Most vaccines then take between 5 and 18 years to develop and reach the public.3

Historically, developing a new vaccine has required:

  • 10 years of research by the pharmaceutical industry.4
  • 12 to 18 months of rigorous safety tests by the regulator.5
  • 24 months for the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture. 6


Clinical trials

Every medicine used in the NHS has to be rigorously tested before it can be used.

Clinical trials are essential for testing whether a medicine is safe and effective and begin with healthy volunteers. They can take anywhere from weeks to years depending on the type of disease and the type of medicine being analysed.

Once a trial has finished, the results are shared with the regulator who has the final decision on whether to grant a license.The NHS works closely with the pharmaceutical industry and is very active in research.


Vaccines must be monitored and regulated throughout their lifetime. The pharmaceutical company has a duty to monitor the vaccine and make sure it performs safely for as long as it’s on the market. This process is called pharmacovigilance and it helps inform regulators about previously unknown side effects.

Collecting this data provides a better understanding of what a vaccine can do and how it might be used to treat other conditions or unlock basic science to progress new treatments for future generations.

Share the facts

Vaccine safety & COVID-19

Regulators will apply the same scrutiny and testing that every vaccine goes through, looking carefully at the data to consider the risks and benefits to the population.

Global pharmaceutical companies and research institutions are focused on developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Any breakthroughs will be subject to very strict and extensive testing to make sure they meet safety requirements and are effective for use.

Cutting edge technology

As well as researching and developing new vaccines, the pharmaceutical industry is exploring ways to make vaccines more effective, and easier to use. That’s especially important for infectious diseases that impact parts of the world without developed healthcare systems.

For example, research aims to reduce the need for multiple doses of a vaccine by boosting the body’s immune response.7

Pharmaceutical companies are also looking at ways to make vaccines easier to use. This includes creating new types of packaging, and using drones to make storage and delivery easier.8


  1. OHE. Value of Vaccines report (OHE, July 2020)
  2. Oxford University, Vaccine knowledge project, 2018
  3. ABPI, Coronavirus, your questions answered, 2020
  4. IFPMA, Innovation for a healthier world, 2015
  5. Vaccines Europe,The EU vaccine industry in Figures, 2015
  6. Plotkin S et al, The complexity of vaccine manufacturing - an overview, 2017
  7. Australian Academy of Science, What does the future of vaccination hold?, Apr 2020
  8. Gavi, Generation Gavi: Partnering to protect health through life saving vaccines, May 2020