The new technology behind Pfizer’s and Moderna’s coronavirus vaccines could be used to prevent everything from heart disease to cancer, experts say.
The breakthrough vaccine ‘platform’ they use transforms the body into a virus-zapping vaccine factory and could be retooled to run interference on other diseases and speed the development of shots to prevent future pandemics.
So-called messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines have now seen great success in late-stage trials by Moderna as well as Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, and their efficacy for COVID-19 serve the first proof the concept works.
Both experimental vaccines had efficacy rates above 90 percent based on interim findings, which was far higher than expected and well above the 50 percent threshold U.S. regulators insist upon for vaccines.
Now scientists say the technology, a slow-motion revolution in the making since the discovery of mRNA nearly 60 years ago, could speed up the development of new vaccines.
Because they are based on a form of genetic material found in viruses as well as healthy or diseased human cells, mRNA vaccines can be programmed to target many potential causes of disease – at least in theory – and can be made more quickly and cheaply than other shots.
The traditional method of creating vaccines – introducing a weakened or dead virus, or a piece of one, to stimulate the body’s immune system – takes over a decade on average, according to a 2013 study. One pandemic flu vaccine took over eight years while a hepatitis B vaccine was nearly 18 years in the making.
Moderna’s vaccine went from gene sequencing to the first human injection in 63 days.
With BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 candidate on a similar trajectory, both could win regulatory approval this year, barely 12 months since the coronavirus first emerged.
Other companies are pursuing the technology such as Germany’s CureVac also has an mRNA vaccine candidate, though has yet to start a late-stage trial and is hoping it will get the green light after July 2021.
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