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How COVID-19 unlocked the potential of mRNA technology

Alex Stanford our consultant managing the role
Posted by Alex Stanford
Published on 20 October 2021

For years, vaccine researchers had been fascinated by the potential of mRNA (messenger RNA) technology, however, had been frustrated by their inability to effectively utilise it. In the early months of 2020, almost nobody in the world had heard of an mRNA vaccine, as no country in the world had ever approved one. Months later, the same technology powered the two fastest vaccine trials in the history of science.

The emergence of mRNA technology was not an overnight story; in fact, this remarkable breakthrough was decades in the making. So that poses the question: how did COVID-19 unlock the potential of mRNA technology?

What is mRNA technology?

mRNA technology, which was used in the COVID-19 vaccines, is designed to protect us against infectious diseases. The majority of vaccines inject a weakened version of a virus into our bodies to trigger a response from our immune systems. However, mRNA vaccines take a different approach. They teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That response then produces the antibodies that we need to protect us from being infected if the actual virus enters our bodies.

mRNA technology before COVID-19

For decades, scientists had marvelled over the seemingly endless potential of messenger RNA. Researchers understood its possible role in combatting infectious diseases throughout the world, but their efforts to progress the technology were often hampered.

The concept of attempting to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease was often deemed too far-fetched for government grants or corporate funding and support.

In addition, pharmaceutical companies were not eager to invest in mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases as there were many existing effective vaccine platforms in use and there was no urgent need for a drastic change in direction. Therefore, up until last year, an mRNA vaccine had never been approved for human use.

How COVID-19 accelerated the development of mRNA vaccines

When scientists began looking for a vaccine for the coronavirus in early 2020, mRNA technology was touted as a potentially effective solution. Given the urgency of the pandemic, millions banded together to fight COVID-19, resulting in a remarkable run of events.

One of the organisations spearheading the vaccine movement was Moderna. Within days of receiving the genetic sequence, they identified mRNA vaccines as a solution to the pandemic. Working with the US National Institutes of Health, Moderna then ran experiments that allowed them to commence their first-in-human testing in a span of just two months. The allocation of additional resources, paired with rapid testing, took mRNA from a promising concept to a ground-breaking change in vaccine technology.

The rapid pace of the COVID-19 vaccine development over the course of 2020 is widely considered a tremendous feat of science, with companies from all around the world helping in the race for a speedy solution. The global medical community now has a plethora of resources to rapidly respond to future pandemics and potentially cure existing diseases.

The future of mRNA technology

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to lead to some radical changes in vaccine development. Developments in the technology are now helping researchers close in on some historic milestones in vaccine development — such as a universal flu jab that would be effective against any strain of the virus without the need for annual boosters.

While booster vaccines for COVID-19 are likely to be the next application of mRNA technology, scientists are working on treatments for cancer, genetic diseases, HIV and many more diseases that are prominent in lower-income countries.

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