The announcement by drug maker Moderna that preliminary data from its still ongoing trial shows its COVID-19 vaccine is 95 percent effective is extremely encouraging. The news, combined with Pfizer’s announcement last week that the vaccine it made with German partner BioNTech is over 90 percent effective, means that the two companies may soon apply for approval and that vaccines might be available as soon as December.
Both companies utilize a new technology called m-RNA or messenger RNA that involves synthesizing the genetic instructions to make desired proteins, injecting them into patients, and having the patients’ own cells churn out the proteins. Human cells normally make m-RNA to carry protein making instructions from their own DNA. For a COVID-19 vaccine, researchers created m-RNA that codes for a protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. When a vaccine recipient’s cells take up this m-RNA into their own cells, they use the m-RNA as a template to produce the SARS-CoV-2 proteins. These proteins trigger an immune response in which the vaccine recipient makes antibodies to the protein, enabling the recipient to identify and destroy the virus before it causes illness.
While m-RNA has been talked about for years, these vaccines appear to be the first successful use of the technology. The fact that both companies have been able to produce an m-RNA vaccine that is effective at eliciting an immune response and, thus far, has not provoked severe side effects is an important proof of concept for the technology both for COVID-19 and potentially for other diseases.
The Trump administration through Operation Warp Speed has already committed to buy up the first 100 million doses of each company’s vaccines and distribute them to patients at no cost. Since each vaccine requires two doses, these first 200 million doses can vaccinate 100 million persons. Pfizer has indicated it could ship up to 50 million doses in 2020 and Moderna has said up to 20 million doses. These initial doses, enough to vaccinate 35 million people, will likely be targeted to front-line health workers and high-risk populations like the elderly and people with medical co-morbidities.
The rapid progress from discovery of a new virus to multiple new vaccines utilizing novel technology in under one year is a testament to the innovative power of the private market to discover, develop, and provide life-saving new products.