A few hours: That’s how long it took BioNTech co-founder Uğur Şahin to design a vaccine for COVID-19 in January of 2020.
The virus was hardly what we know it now to be at the time: It was beginning to spread from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, but only a smattering of cases had been located in Europe and North America. On January 11, the genetic sequence for the virus was made public; within days, manufacturers had vaccines ready to test.
The rapid pace of COVID-19 vaccine development over the course of 2020 is widely considered a tremendous feat of science. And it’s all thanks to genetically-engineering messenger RNA (mRNA) platforms.
In the human body, mRNA make up the strand of molecules that complement DNA to complete our genetic sequence, and are responsible for creating the proteins that fill out these strands. Vaccines like the one that Sahin created are made of engineered mRNA, created to match the genetic code of the virus they’re designed to treat. When injected into the body, mRNA creates proteins the immune system needs to fight off a specific foreign antigen, like SARS-COV-2. The antibodies this creates remain in the body long-term and help prevent future infection from a specific foreign virus.
Figuring out how to create vaccines out of engineered mRNA took the scientific community decades to accomplish—but the bulk of what went into the COVID vaccine was already developed, tested and used to treat large masses of people. With mRNA vaccines, all that needs to be swapped out are a handful of proteins applicable to a specific virus before it goes into clinical trials, where it spends the bulk of development time, before being deployed to the masses. That means developing vaccines is faster and easier than ever before, and with mRNA platforms, the global medical community now has a body of resources to quickly respond to future pandemics.
“There’s really potential to do a lot,” said Jonas Sandbrink, researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute, who authored a commentary on the potential of mRNA vaccines for tackling emerging pandemics. “The hope is, basically, there are no underlying safety considerations, because we've proved a lot of vaccines that work very similarly, that we'll be able to accelerate the testing process dramatically.”
It’s what many in the field know as a “universal vaccine,” or a treatment for all future variants of coronaviruses (the family of spherical, crown-shaped pathogens) that would allow manufacturers to build new vaccines for new viruses in a matter of days or hours. It’s a subject of massive research investment globally, with researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research all throwing research and development dollars into developing one for coronaviruses. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also recently announced it was launching clinical trials for a universal flu vaccine.
RNA, specifically, makes for a superior ingredient in a universal vaccine, compared to, say, a fragment of actual virus, as is the case with live attenuated vaccines. (These are no longer the norm, Sandbrink says.)
The mRNA route is also safer, according to Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. With live attenuated vaccines, a small chunk of a live virus pathogen is whittled down until it’s safe to inject into the body, which the immune system responds to by building antibodies. This method was developed in the late 1700s to treat small pox, she told We’re Better Off, a podcast from TH Chan. But injecting a person with live vaccines comes with risk that mRNA vaccines do not have, she says.
“The vaccine platform, because those mRNA vaccines are not alive, is safe,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about this.”
Live attenuated vaccines are also slower to develop, and were inadequate to respond to what the U.S. perceived to be threats of bioterrorism after 9/11, Fortune noted, which led to the increased investment in mRNA vaccine platforms in the aughts. Though the technology had been in the works since the 1970s, it was never a focus for research dollars until that point — but by the late 2000s, a range of new vaccine companies, including Pfizer’s BioNTech, launched with the goal of developing mRNA vaccines. By the late 2010s, researchers were working to identify a protein sequence that would respond to a coronavirus. And when it came time to develop a response specific to SARS-COV-2, vaccine manufacturers were able to hit the ground running.
“There were decades of work involved in mRNA vaccine platforms, and in fact, in testing different kinds of vaccines for different coronaviruses,” Fortune told We’re Better Off. “When SARS-CoV-2 first appeared at the end of 2019, actually we had a huge foundational knowledge that accelerated that vaccine development.”
Sandbrink was part of a team that benefited from these decades of vaccine development, at the University of Oxford. He predicts the process of vaccine creation will only get exponentially faster and simpler with time.
The primary hiccup in this process are clinical trials, he says, which are vital, but time consuming. On a global scale, this is an issue that is likely to persist without substantial political will to reduce kinks in the approval process, he says—but with the foundation of technology and innovation making mRNA vaccine development faster, the world will only become increasingly equipped to deal with future pandemics.
“To go from sequence to product, I think, probably, you can do that in a couple of weeks,” Sandbrink said. “I mean, not quite yet, but I think we'll be able to get that.”
This series is supported by Pfizer. Motherboard retains editorial independence.