Don’t worry, this post is not going to be about how all the anti-vaxxers die or about injecting disinfectants to cure the pandemic. But I’m still allowed one meme! This week on #TechTalksWithMewyn I will be talking about the new vaccine technology – mRNA.
Over the past few weeks, we have heard varying reports about the lead time to get an actual working vaccine that may be available from anywhere between November 2020 to Spring of 2022. As you may have already learned, the creation of vaccines is a time taking process and the testing process can take as much time if not more. In a 2016 video released by pharma giant, GSK (Glaxo-Smith-Kline), they mention that it can take anywhere between 6 to 26 months to manufacture a vaccine after about 10 to 30 years of Research & Development.
How then can we have a vaccine this November? No, the government is not taking shortcuts to jeopardize your health, instead, the answer is once again technology! Before we get into details about this new technology, let’s do a quick recap of two high school biology concepts.
- DNA & RNA: Nucleic acids are small biomolecules that form long chains of itself and are essential to all known forms of life. These acids are primarily made up of DNA & RNA. DNA is used to pass on hereditary information from parent to child and the RNA is the messenger that carries instructions from the DNA to control the creation of proteins.
- Vaccines: The first sentence of the CDC webpage on the basics of vaccines reads, “Vaccines contain the same germs that cause disease”. Where my anti-vaxxers at? Since 1796, when the first small smallpox vaccine was developed and implemented, doctors have been injecting smaller doses of the disease-causing virus after killing or weakening the germs to the point that they don’t make you sick. The science involved is that you are teaching your body to fight the virus (or a weaker version) so that if you do encounter the virus in the future, your immune system knows what to do.
According to the CDC, the traditional method of creating vaccines follows a serial approach of Development, an intermediate Approval, Manufacturing, Testing & Final Approval, and finally Monitoring. This process usually takes years of lab tests and has 3 distinct phases of clinical trials:
Phase 1: Between 20 to 100 volunteers are administered the vaccine and tested for efficacy, safety, serious side-effects, and to determine the right dosage.
Phase 2: A couple of 100 people are tested for side-effects, and to identify any short term issues due to the vaccine.
Phase 3: Thousands of people are tested to validate the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Some people are provided placebos (or fakes) to identify whether the vaccine is responsible for causing the observed results.
After all these approvals and tests, the vaccine is still monitored as it is being administered across the country. Serious reactions to vaccinations are captured using the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) and the Post Licensure Rapid Immunization Safety Monitoring System (PRISM) that covers over 190 million Americans.
Conventional approaches to vaccine development aren’t ideal for rapid development, which is needed in the case of HIV and malaria as the viruses mutate over time. The inherent risk of working with a live virus is amplified by known cases of accidental leaks from labs such as smallpox & dengue in the UK, and smallpox in the US (2014). Finally, the disastrous dengue vaccinations that made people susceptible to severe infection if they didn’t already have dengue before encouraged researchers to actively pursue newer methods of developing vaccines.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines provide a promising alternative to conventional vaccines and don’t fall prey to the many downsides of conventional vaccines. mRNA vaccines trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself and not the entire virus. This, in turn, triggers the immune system to build a defensive response without ever encountering the virus itself. This may be the key to winning over our anti-vaxxers out there!
While this technology has been around for 30 years, we still have not had any vaccine approved using this methodology. An important step in this process is the decoding of the genetic material of any virus. With the advances in computing, researchers in China were able to identify the genetic sequence of COVID-19 within a month and have shared it with the world. For information on how the world is collaborating with data, have a look at my previous post: Can Good Looks Save the World from COVID-19?
Moderna, a biotech startup in Boston, has already created a vaccine using the mRNA technology and is conducting Phase 1 trials on humans. The absence of any live virus eliminates the theoretical risk of infecting people across the lifecycle of the product. Traditionally, a common flu-virus vaccine is grown in chicken eggs and it takes up to two years to get that protein ready. Moderna has already saved on those 2 valuable years, plus the additional time it would need to procure the live COVID-19 virus. The relative ease of manufacturing mRNA vaccines has led the company to expect the production of its first batch in July 2020.
With known upsides of safety from live viruses and rapid production, the only unknown lies in the efficacy of the drug and that is something that only time will tell. Over the years, we have accepted that some vaccines may be a one-shot-for-life like measles, while others may need repetitive boosters like polio, and in some cases, like HIV we may not have a vaccine at all, but can control it with daily preventative pills. The only known here is that We Will Adapt, and We Will Survive!
Fount of wisdom, insufferable know it all, make it go away are just some of the phrases used to define Melwyn. When he is not at his Consulting job, he spends his time reading about technology and current affairs.