Until the COVID-19 pandemic the Messenger RNA technology, which was unknown to the general public and never tested in vaccines for humans, has overtaken all other types of vaccines now considered obsolete by some. Are these mRNA vaccines really superior to the others? Will they eventually become the standard for all diseases?
The game seems to be on. While millions of doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccines around the world find no takers, mRNA vaccines such as those from Pfizer or Moderna are selling like hotcakes. Messenger RNA technology which was never tested on humans before 2020 and was still raising suspicions just a few months ago, has finally emerged as the ultimate solution to solve the coronavirus epidemic.
Messenger RNA technology a big breakthrough
So much so that RNA is now seen as the technology of the future, capable of turning everything on its head. Sanofi, for example, has just begun a phase I study for an mRNA-based flu vaccine. “The current pandemic has shown us how promising the mRNA technology is, and we are now going to see if we can extend it to other annual vaccines,” explains Jean-François Toussaint, Global Head of Research and Development at Sanofi Pasteur. “All the major pharmaceutical companies are testing the technique in one way or another,” confirms Jeffrey Ulmer, former head of research and development at the Vaccine Division of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Now, messenger RNA is being considered for use against tumors, cystic fibrosis, cytomegalovirus, malaria, and even HIV. Does this mean our good old vaccines will soon be forgotten?
RNA vaccines got a major Break?
Definitely not! With Covid, RNA technology has just had a major break! Indeed researchers have been trying to develop vaccines against the flu, rabies, and Ebola using this technology for years, but were not succeeding. Several labs working on mRNA vaccines were about to stop their research when Covid-19 arrived. And while the superiority of these vaccines in terms of efficacy is unquestionably better, there is no guarantee that this would be true for other diseases. On paper, an RNA vaccine is even less effective than a vaccine containing a live inactivated virus. The coronavirus contains more than 30,000 nucleotides, and the RNA vaccine targets only a few of them, those in the Spike protein. Live attenuated or inactivated vaccines, such as those for measles or mumps, contain the entire genome of the virus and therefore can trigger a much more complete immune response.
The other reason why mRNA vaccines are far from being able to supplant all other vaccines is the question of cost. The production of these vaccines is much more expensive than that of vaccines that are simply “incubated” in eggs, for example. Because of Covid, no one asked the question, and money was spent without considering the cost. But who in normal times would be willing to pay 25 dollars for an RNA vaccine, while the measles vaccine, which has proven itself for more than 30 years, costs less than one dollar? According to the expert, putting RNA vaccines everywhere would “ruin every country.” It is interesting to note that RNA vaccines have been developed by laboratories that are not at all specialized in vaccines. The world’s largest manufacturers, such as GSK, Merck, and the Indian Serum Institute, have not ventured into this adventure at least so far.
Messenger RNA vaccines: More failures than successes
On June 14, biotech Novavax announced a 90.4% efficacy rate for its Covid-19 vaccine, including the latest variants. A figure that rivals those of Pfizer or Moderna. However, Novavax’s vaccine is not based on RNA, but on so-called recombinant proteins, in which virus-like proteins are produced in insect cells. Interestingly, the announcement has gone almost unnoticed, whereas any study involving Pfizer or Moderna is the subject of intense media hype. Also, the disappointing results of the mRNA vaccine CureVac, which was found to be only 47% effective, below the World Health Organization’s 50% threshold.
As of May 2020, there were 18 RNA vaccines in development worldwide. One year later, only two of these vaccines are finally available, while nine others based on more traditional technologies have passed phase 3 clinical trials. Make no mistake: the development of mRNA vaccines in such a short time and with such high efficacy is a real scientific achievement. But there is no guarantee that this achievement can be repeated in a future pandemic. In history, no technology has ever become a universal panacea.
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