Story at a glance

  • The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a new technology based on messenger RNA.
  • Prior to these vaccines, mRNA vaccines were tested and under development but there are no existing mRNA vaccines with full FDA approval.
  • Pfizer’s CEO says that flu vaccines could be next to get the mRNA technology treatment.

At a conference hosted by JP Morgan, Albert Bourla, the chairperson and chief executive of Pfizer, spoke about using mRNA technology to tackle other diseases, according to Business Insider. “We accumulated scientific knowledge and technology and know-how of years,” he said. “We have developed infrastructure that normally would take years to be able to develop.”

Prior to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the mRNA technology used to create the vaccines had not been used in any existing vaccines. The technology’s development began decades ago and has accelerated to meet the current demand for a coronavirus vaccine. Although an mRNA vaccine hasn’t ever been approved for use in humans, it’s been widely tested in animals for influenza virus, Zika virus, rabies virus and others.

“About 30 years ago, a handful of scientists began exploring whether vaccines could be made more simply,” writes physician Anthony Komaroff, the editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Letter, on the Harvard Health Publishing website. “What if you knew the exact structure of the mRNA that made the critical piece of a virus’s protein coat, such as the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus?”

The work since then has been to develop ways to make mRNA vaccines that are safe and do what they are meant to do in the body.


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Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a small piece of genetic material that encodes for a specific protein from a virus or other entity. In the case of the coronavirus vaccines, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines use the genetic material for the spike protein on the virus. The spike protein is what allows the virus to attach to cells in our bodies and get into the cells to replicate.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the one that causes COVID-19, was sequenced in January 2020. “Within minutes, scientists 10,000 miles away began working on the design of an mRNA vaccine,” writes Komaroff. “Within weeks, they had made enough vaccine to test it in animals, and then in people.”


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A problem that had to be overcome during this pandemic to get the vaccine to people was scaling up production to manufacture doses. This was identified as an issue as recently as 2018 in a review article published in Nature. In 2020, with loads of funding and guaranteed buyers, vaccine makers got to build up their manufacturing capabilities for the coronavirus vaccines.

By moving forward to think about how this technology can be used for other viruses, we can use mRNA technology to make a vaccine if we know the genetic sequence of a virus and know which section of it would be used by the virus to get into our cells.

“We think that mRNA can completely disrupt the flu market because you can do things in weeks instead of months,” Bourla said. “So as the flu market is changing every year with a new variant, this technology is ideal to be able to adjust to the latest news of the current strength and be much more effective as a result.”

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Jan 13, 2021