In January of 2020, news began to trickle in from China about a new virus that was spreading, causing the country to lock down millions of its citizens. By March of 2020, large portions of the world had implemented similar measures to limit the exponential spread of the new coronavirus and prevent hospital systems from being overwhelmed. The rest, as they say, is history.
By December of 2020, the FDA had provided emergency use authorization for the first vaccine targeted at preventing COVID-19. This vaccine was developed and approved more quickly than any vaccine in history – the typical timeline taking 4+ years to complete (see graphic below).
What made this improbable feat a reality? In part, it was due to a coronavirus that did not mutate quickly and massive amounts of attention and funding, but it was also due to a vaccine technology called messenger RNA, or mRNA, for short.
To call mRNA a new technology is a bit of misnomer and a discredit to the decades of research that laid the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccines. Research on mRNA technology started over a decade ago, with precursor research beginning back in the 1990s. At its core, the technology works like a traditional vaccine: it teaches the body to defend itself against a specific virus or disease. The path it takes to arrive at the destination is what makes the mRNA technique special.
Traditional vaccine application uses a version of the pathogen to teach the body to react. The version used may be weaker or just a portion of said virus or disease. mRNA on the other hand, does not use the virus itself, but rather its genetic code. Think of it as a picture of the virus, rather than the actual thing. This is important because without the actual virus being introduced into our bodies, there is no risk of accidental infection. This picture attaches to our cells and provides the body’s immune system with instructions on how to defend itself. Contrary to popular belief, the mRNA structure does not enter the body’s cellular makeup, thereby leaving our genetic code unaffected. The end result is a vaccine that induces a highly efficient immune response, as evidenced by the superior efficacy of the recently approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
However, it is not just the vaccine itself that sets mRNA apart from traditional methods. The research and development process is more efficient as well. The mRNA method eliminates the need to produce mass quantities of the virus for distribution into vaccines, a process that can be time consuming and costly. Instead, once the genetic code of the virus is known, work can begin immediately in a laboratory on finding the proper RNA sequence to cause the body to react appropriately. This sequence can then be produced at scale very quickly.
Developing a vaccine for the coronavirus was top on the list of global priorities for 2020. This meant enormous funding and time was dedicated to research and development, and the risks of previously unapproved technologies were justified and encouraged. Luck and timing played a part too. Recent developments in the mRNA process made the immune response less inflammatory and new organic microscopic containers made the delivery method more viable. In essence, the stars aligned.
Having earned its stripes with the coronavirus, mRNA is now primed to become the vaccine technology of the future. The delivery method lends itself nicely to this role, allowing for any genetic code to be inserted into its template. The technology is even expected to be able to handle multiple diseases at once. The possibilities are bright, with talk of mRNA being applied to combat any number of harmful pathogens. The process may not be as fast without the same global fervor, but the work can climb on the back of what was accomplished in 2020.