Although it has been just nine weeks since scientists around the world received the genetic code for COVID-19, a phase 1 clinical trial for a vaccine (mRNA-1273) has already begun. This timescale from genomic sequence to clinical trial is unprecedented in vaccine development.
Through a collaboration between Moderna, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the safety and immune response elicited by the vaccine will be assessed over the coming weeks in a small clinical trial involving 45 people. The trial is the critical first step in understanding whether the vaccine could protect people against COVID-19 infection.
This vaccine, unlike traditional vaccines, has been developed using ribonucleic acid (RNA) technology. If successful, the cutting-edge method could revolutionise vaccine development for future disease outbreaks.
RNA is present in all living cells and is important in the manufacture of proteins necessary for cell function. An RNA vaccine would work by hijacking the proteins in our cells to replicate a version of a virus protein which our bodies can mount an immune response to, for example by producing antibodies or a cellular response. This would prepare our immune system should we encounter the real virus later on.
RNA vaccine development is a very promising field but has yet to yield a licensed product. A major challenge has been figuring out how to deliver the RNA vaccine into the cell so it survives – our bodies naturally want to destroy foreign RNA molecules.
So, if we don’t know whether it works yet, why are we focusing on new technologies when we have years of experience with other vaccine approaches?
Over the past few decades we’ve seen changes in the spread of infectious diseases caused by factors such as increased urbanisation, a more interconnected world and global warming. This has highlighted three problems with traditional vaccine development and manufacture:
RNA vaccine development holds the promise of being faster, cheaper and more scalable because the vaccines:
My hope is that the funding and focus going into vaccine development for COVID-19 will allow breakthroughs of these new technologies. If we can hone new methods of development, we’ll be much better prepared for any future outbreaks and able to save more lives with vaccines, faster.
That is why the urgent funding gaps in the global response to COVID-19 must be addressed. Only through appropriate funding can innovations like this RNA vaccine trial be made possible.