Nov 25, 2020 - Health

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Illustration of a shield with DNA and a syringe
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

By the numbers: As the first COVID-19 vaccines near emergency authorization, it's worth reflecting on just how fast their development has been.

  • Vaccines usually take more than 10 years to go from discovery to regulatory approval, and the fastest on record was four years, for the mumps.
  • The world now has three vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — ready for regulatory approval just one year after what are believed to be the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China.

How it works: The COVID-19 vaccines progressed so swiftly because they were built using a new platform: gene-based technology that harnesses messenger RNA (mRNA) to essentially instruct the human body to make the vaccine itself.

  • Conventional vaccines use either a weakened virus or purified signature viral proteins to prompt the body to safely generate immunity. That's effective, but the act of growing the attenuated virus or purifying the proteins is slow and laborious.
  • mRNA vaccines, by contrast, can be developed almost as quickly as a virus can be genetically sequenced — Moderna shipped the first batch of its vaccine for clinical study a month and a half after Chinese authorities shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus.

What they're saying: "It could be quite a new era for vaccines and vaccinology," Brendan Wren, a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told USA Today. "We seemed to move ahead in this one year 10 years."

What's next: As mRNA technology improves, so should the speed at which new vaccines can be developed and rolled out, which would be hugely beneficial when the inevitable next pandemic hits.

Our thought bubble: The COVID-19 vaccine represents technological innovation at its best, in that it can save us from ourselves.

  • The ability to rapidly develop a vaccine for every new disease would relieve human beings of the need to make social distancing tradeoffs they can't seem to make.

Scientists are also hopeful that mRNA and other gene-based platforms could improve mediocre existing vaccines like the perennially underwhelming flu shot and give researchers a new approach for challenging viruses like HIV.

  • Pharma companies are even exploring whether the technology could yield treatments for heart disease and cancer, which between them kill more than 1.2 million Americans a year.

Yes, but: While both the effectiveness and the safety data of the COVID-19 vaccines have been sterling — albeit with some questions around AstraZeneca's candidate — mRNA vaccines have never been used before, and we won't know for sure how well they work until they go to work.

  • Distributing vaccines to just about everyone on the globe has also never been attempted before, and unfortunately there's no gene-based shortcut for the hard work of logistics.

The bottom line: The proof will be in the shots themselves, but right now it looks like finding a new and better way of making vaccines will be one of the few good things to come out of our plague year.

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