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

Smithers Interior News Editorial
Editorial: Opportunity for equality

COVID-19 has amplified inequalities faced by women; the recovery can be a step forward

These storefronts on Trunk Road have been informed by the City of Duncan that they must change their addresses to Festubert Street. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Duncan business owners upset about being forced to change address

Owners say City of Duncan’s plan will hurt their business

The Cowichan Capitals traded defenceman Clark Webster to his hometown Summerside Western Capitals. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Hopeful Cowichan Capitals make flurry of deadline deals

Roster bolstered in case BCHL season gets go-ahead

Neurologist and medical educator Dr. Alexandre Henri-Bhargava, seen here speaking at the 2020 Breakfast to Remember in Victoria, will delve into the latest in dementia research during an interactive research event exclusively for attendees of this year’s virtual Breakfast. Access to the March 10 research event is included with the purchase of a Breakfast to Remember ticket. (Kevin Light Photography)
Blast off with Chris Hadfield at Alzheimer Society’s Breakfast to Remember in March

The Society hopes people in all corners of the province will make the most of this opportunity

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

A recently finished $4.3-million taxiway extension at the Victoria International Airport (not pictured) is unusable because of a blind spot. (Black Press Media file photo)
Blind spot leaves Victoria airport’s new $4.3-million taxiway extension unusable

Solution has been put on hold by COVID-19 pandemic, says airport authority

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

This was the scene outside North Saanich’s Parkland Secondary School after an attempted but unsuccessful break-and-enter into the school torched an ATM inside of it. Sidney/North Saanich RCMP did not make any arrests and currently lack suspects as the investigation continues. Members of the public who may have witnessed something or possess other information can contact police at (250) 656-3931 or to Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS. (Submitted)
Money to burn: burglars torch North Saanich high school ATM

Police dogs searched the exterior and interior of the school after early morning break-and-enter

A recently published study out of UBC has found a link between life satisfaction levels and overall health. (Pixabay)
Satisfied with life? It’s likely you’re healthier for it: UBC study

UBC psychologists have found those more satisfied with their life have a 26% reduced risk of dying

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

Most Read