Americans are slowly returning to their favorite mom-and-pop shops and locally-owned restaurants. With COVID-19 cases falling each day, and 14% of the population fully vaccinated, most states have lifted the strictest lockdown measures.

Of course, relief can't come soon enough for small to mid-size businesses. These firms are the backbone of our economy, accounting for more than 40% of GDP and almost half of all jobs. And our economy will depend on these firms to create new jobs and quickly rebuild to bring the nation back to full recovery.

Small firms have borne the economic brunt of the coronavirus, largely because so many of their business models depend on in-person interaction. Sadly, thousands -- perhaps millions -- will not survive. The Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey reported that during the week of March 8th to 14th alone, 1.3% of small businesses permanently closed a location. Many others are struggling to stay afloat, with 45% of businesses reporting a decreased operating capacity compared to before the pandemic. Restaurants -- close to 90% of which are small businesses -- have suffered massively, with the sector losing 2.5 million jobs and $240 billion in sales in 2020.

Still, things could have been much worse without the quick "pivoting" of entrepreneurs, and of course the vaccines. It is critical for elected leaders to understand the policies that have brought us to this positive juncture in order to make the right choices for the future.

Early last year, experts didn't know if drug makers could invent, test, and produce vaccines for a brand-new disease as rapidly as they did. The previous record for speedy vaccine development, after all, had been four years, and it often takes 10 to 15. Yet Moderna and Pfizer brought their vaccines to market in less than one.

In the face of this highly contagious and potentially deadly disease, in-person enterprises would not be able to reopen without vaccines. It's harrowing to think how the economy -- and especially small businesses -- would fare in the face of multi-year lockdowns. Even if governments didn't impose restrictions, without effective shots, customers would stay away out of caution.

Instead, in less than 18 months after the emergence of COVID-19, Americans now have access to three COVID-19 inoculations granted FDA emergency use authorization, with more likely on the way.

But fast doesn't mean rushed. More than 116,000 volunteers participated in phase 3 trials for one of these three vaccines -- all of which had to go through several levels of independent oversight prior to approval.

While the pace of vaccine development has been dramatic, it's no miracle. Industry and government officials have spent decades honing policies that facilitate rapid medical innovation.

The system that gave us record-speed vaccines rests on a few pillars.

One is the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act. It promotes technology transfer from academia to the private sector by letting universities own and license patents on discoveries made with help from federal grants. Prior to the law, the government retained the patents on any innovative ideas that arose from federally funded research. By giving universities the right, and incentive, to license their researchers' discoveries to private companies, the law has spurred the creation of countless startups.

Another important tenet is allowing companies to price products without government restrictions, which encourages risk-taking and the sizable level of investment it takes to bring a drug or treatment to market.

Finally, stringent protections on intellectual property, including patents, give investors and innovators the confidence they need to make large bets -- in terms of financial investment and human capital -- on long-shot drug research.

These policies explain why the U.S. has been the world's leading drug developer for more than 30 years. And why a company like Moderna -- itself a small startup just a decade ago -- could produce a vaccine based on cutting-edge mRNA technology in record time.

Some lawmakers, unfortunately, are keen to loosen intellectual property protections and impose price controls on new drugs. Such policies would make us unready for the next public health crisis. If we torpedo our current system, the lockdowns we face when the next pandemic rolls around could last much longer.

It's been a long and challenging year, but we have finally reached a hopeful point thanks to the policies that gave us vaccines in record time. A thriving future for small business, innovation and our nation's health depends on keeping these critical policies intact -- and each one of us doing our part by getting the shot.

Karen Kerrigan is president and CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.