Updated: May 3, 2021
Written By: Rachel Mason
After a year full of frustration and misinformation surrounding COVID-19, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel: the development of mRNA vaccines. Though more vaccines are still in development, and non-mRNA vaccines have been approved in some parts of the world, the first two COVID-19 vaccines released were both based on mRNA technology. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed in eleven months - shockingly fast - considering the prior record-holder was the Rubella vaccine, which took four years to develop. Already, vaccines have contributed to a significant decline in COVID-19 cases. To really understand mRNA vaccines (and why they’re nothing to fear), one first has to learn what exactly they are.
Contributing to the rapid arrival of the vaccines was the unprecedented global collaboration and funding for research. In addition, mRNA vaccines are not actually a new technology and have been used to develop treatments for diseases like Ebola. However, this is the first time they will be widely available. mRNA vaccines are special: rather than eliciting an immune response through a pathogen (a disease-causing microorganism), they allow cells to produce antigens (the target of the immune response) themselves. This process begins when an individual is injected with the genetic instructions to produce antigens (which, for both vaccines, is a spike protein on the outside of the coronavirus). This genetic information is stored in a polymer called mRNA, which can be “read” by proteins in our body called ribosomes that translate the mRNA into a protein code. mRNA cannot enter the nucleus, where your genetic information is stored, so there is no way these vaccines can modify your DNA (despite what some sources would like you to believe). In short, instead of releasing the antigen for COVID-19 into the body, mRNA vaccines work by providing the instructions for how to make these antigens and let our cells do the rest of the work. The body’s cells convert the mRNA into an antigen that the immune system responds to with the creation of antibodies. The protein the mRNA codes for is harmless by itself. Because it exists on COVID-19, however, if a vaccinated person is infected with the disease, their immune system will recognize the protein marker and eliminate the virus.
The shortened timeline under which the mRNA vaccines have been developed has raised some eyebrows. However, this can be explained by the relative simplicity of the biology behind mRNA vaccines. Scientists can artificially synthesize mRNA vaccines relatively easily; there’s no need to determine exactly how much a pathogen needs to be weakened to maintain its effectiveness while remaining harmless or to spend time growing antigens. Many vaccines also need to be coupled with an adjuvant (a chemical that stimulates an immune response), but foreign mRNA can elicit a significant immune response on its own. Along with unprecedented global collaboration and the use of accelerated clinical trials, these factors have led to lightning-fast vaccine development without a compromise on safety or efficacy. Not only could the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the speed at which they were synthesized means mRNA vaccines could also revolutionize our approach to battling all infectious diseases.
As with many significant achievements in science, women played a significant role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. Katalin Karikó’s research pioneered the usage of mRNA in vaccines for the very first time. Initially, Kariko and her partner, Drew Weissman, were told that their research was too radical to ever be used. Now, as the Vice President of BioNTech, Kariko is taking an active role in ending the pandemic. Her work provides the basis for both mRNA vaccines currently approved in the United States.
Another scientist, Kizzmekia Corbett, led the research collaboration between the National Institute of Health and Moderna. At only 35 years old, Corbett leads the coronavirus team of the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases Vaccine Research Center (VRC). At the VRC, Corbett’s team researched proteins that the COVID-19 vaccine could target. The protein her team selected is what the mRNA in the Moderna vaccine codes for. She was even praised by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has led the US response to COVID-19, as being “right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”
Additionally, Dr. Ozlem Tureci was one of the two founders of BioNTech, the company that collaborated with Pfizer for its mRNA vaccine. At BioNTech, Tureci has been involved in over 500 patents, served on the advisory board, and served as Chief Medical Officer of the company. As the CMO, she runs BioNTech's medical research projects, including the clinical trials of the coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer.
When discussing the impact of the mRNA vaccines and the amazing technology behind them, it’s important to remember the women who helped bring them to life. Often, these women’s achievements are glossed over, if not forgotten entirely. But by helping to end a pandemic, these women have changed the course of history.
The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are monumental in a number of ways: they represent the hard work and capabilities of women in STEM, the power of science, and a triumph over disease. Currently, however, only around 60% of people intend to get the vaccine, which is not enough to ensure herd immunity. Scientists are unsure how long natural immunity lasts, so it’s important for everyone to get vaccinated, even those who have already contracted COVID-19. The vaccine has no known serious side effects, while COVID-19 does. It has taken over 2.5 million lives, and with new variants spreading, things could get even worse. The mRNA vaccines could end this pandemic and save millions of lives - but only if we use them.