The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at the Tequesta Fire Department on Friday, Jan.15, 2021 in Tequesta, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Greg Lovett /Northwest Florida Daily News via AP

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at the Tequesta Fire Department on Friday, Jan.15, 2021 in Tequesta, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Greg Lovett /Northwest Florida Daily News via AP

Don’t downplay mRNA: Experts say new technology could change the vaccine landscape

Scientists made the vaccine by programming genetic material from the spike protein into mRNA

When drug companies like Pfizer and Moderna learned to successfully incorporate messenger RNA technology into a COVID-19 vaccine, experts say they likely opened the door to a significant shift in the future of immunization.

The milestone in vaccine development was met with enthusiasm from most, but the seemingly swift pace and novel approach is causing hesitancy in others.

Experts say the new technique shouldn’t dissuade people from getting the vaccine. While the mRNA method is new to inoculations, the actual technology has been around for decades.

The difference now, they say, is scientists have ironed out the kinks to make a useful product.

“It sounds fancy, mRNA, but there’s nothing outlandish about it,” said Dr. Earl Brown, a virology and microbiology specialist with the University of Ottawa. “This is the way our cells operate — we live by mRNA.”

Vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were the first inoculations approved for humans to use mRNA, which provides our cells with instructions to make proteins. In the case of COVID vaccines, the injected material shows cells how to make a harmless piece of the coronavirus spike protein, which then teaches our immune system to recognize the virus and fight off a future infection.

Scientists made the vaccine by programming genetic material from the spike protein into mRNA, a process that theoretically could work for other viruses.

“As long as you know how to create those instructions — that genetic code you need to convince your body to create that target — you can design an mRNA vaccine against any antigen,” said Nicole Basta, an associate professor of epidemiology at McGill.

“But the question is whether it will be effective, and whether it will be safe.”

The development of future mRNA vaccines might be quick, Basta says, but they would need to go through the usual evaluation process and clinical trials to ensure safety and efficacy. So vaccines for other viruses won’t be popping up overnight.

Still, Basta adds, there’s potential for using mRNA to either improve upon existing vaccines or to develop new ones against other pathogens.

Dr. Scott Halperin, a professor at Dalhousie University and the director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, sees mRNA vaccines as “evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”

Part of the reason COVID vaccines came together so quickly was the technology had been developing for years, Halperin said. The global pandemic offered scientists a pressing opportunity — and unprecedented funding and collaboration — to try again for a viable injection.

Previous research had been done on creating mRNA vaccines against Zika and other viruses, Halperin added, and there were earlier efforts focused on cancer treatments. Coronavirus-specific research was further sped up by spike protein analysis from SARS and MERS.

READ MORE: ‘Respond with empathy’: B.C. expert breaks down COVID vaccine myths, reasons for hesitancy

While the mRNA technology itself is impressive, Halperin says improvements need to be made to create a more temperature-stable product before these types of vaccines and treatments “truly take over.”

“The logistics of delivering mRNA vaccines right now, we wouldn’t want to have to do that for every vaccine we produce,” he said, referencing the ultra-cold storage temperature that’s currently needed. “But I do think it’s an important milestone.”

Scientists are expected to continue advancing the technology, just as they did recently in solving two confounding problems with mRNA — its fragility and instability.

Brown says fragility was resolved by packaging the mRNA in a fat coating, giving it something to help bind onto cells so it wouldn’t disintegrate upon injection. The instability was conquered by modifying the uracil component of RNA, one of the four units of its genetic code.

“The technology application is new, but the science is mature,” Brown said. “We’ve just reached the point at which we can apply it.”

Traditional vaccines typically contain a killed or weakened virus, Brown said. Those methods are still being used in COVID vaccine development, including by AstraZeneca-Oxford, whose product has not yet been approved in Canada.

A benefit to using mRNA is the speed at which a vaccine can be developed or updated once scientists know what to target, Brown says.

While experts believe current vaccines will work against recent variants of the COVID virus — including one originating in the U.K. that’s more transmissible — Brown says mRNA’s adaptability could theoretically come in handy if new strains emerged that necessitated an update.

“In six weeks they could produce something,” he said. “It would still have to go through Phase 3 trials, but it does give you more flexibility and a big leg up.”

READ MORE: No Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next week; feds still expect 4M doses by end of March

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Coastal GasLink begins COVID screening of pipeline workers

Construction is once again ramping up following Northern Health approval of COVID management plan

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Chris Paulson of Burns Lake took a quick selfie with a lynx over the weekend of Feb. 20-22, 2021, after the wild cat was found eating some of his chickens. (Chris Paulson/Facebook)
VIDEO: Burns Lake man grabs lynx by scruff after chickens attacked

‘Let’s see the damage you did, buddy,’ Chris Paulson says to the wild cat

Design work continues for planned new hospital

Construction contract still in the works

Northern Health has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Brucejack mine, 65 km north of Stewart on Feb. 11, 2021. (Pretivm Photo)
Northern Health has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Brucejack Mine, 65 kilometres north of Stewart on Feb. 11, 2021. (Pretivm Photo)
Northern Health reports 20 more COVID-19 cases in outbreak at Brucejack Mine

So far, 42 people have tested positive, nine cases are active and self-isolating onsite

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

Most Read