Moderna: Pioneering Vaccination With mRNA Therapeutics

By Alice Han, Edited by Sami Morse

One of the leading candidates in the race to vaccinate for SARS-CoV-2 is under development at Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company focused on drug discovery, drug development, and messenger RNA-based vaccine technologies. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a single-stranded molecule that carries genetic code from DNA in a cell's nucleus to ribosomes as a part of the protein synthesis process. mRNA vaccines take a novel approach that has never before been licensed for human use. The vaccine, known as mRNA-1273, is injected to produce viral proteins in the body, prompting the immune system to develop long-lived immunity to SARS-CoV-2 proteins. The promise of mRNA vaccines lie in their efficiency: vaccine development has the potential to happen much faster than traditional methods because it does not require the strenuous task of inactivating viruses or isolating proteins. For the same reason, mRNA vaccine candidates have the advantage of being more versatile, thereby potentially having stronger protection against viruses that tend to evolve through mutation. Ultimately, mRNA vaccines have the potential to realistically model infection from live microorganisms, effectively forming strong immunity without the risk; as such, many scientists believe they are the future of vaccines.

On top of growing investments in equity, Moderna has received nearly one billion dollars in government funding and has reached an agreement with the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Defense to receive an additional $1.5 billion in exchange for 100 million doses if the vaccine proves to be safe and effective.

After successfully completing preclinical trials, mRNA-1273 became the first vaccine to be tested in humans. On March 16, 2020, phase 1 of testing was initiated with 45 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 55. The participants each received two doses 28 days apart and all developed neutralizing antibodies that inactivated the virus in lab tests. While over half the participants had side effects, the results were promising and the side effects were all minor – fatigue, pain at the injection site, chills, headaches, muscle aches, and fever – and are common side effects associated with vaccination. As with many vaccines during this pandemic through operation warp speed, mRNA-1273 is completing phase 2 and phase 3 clinical trials concurrently. Despite the speed at which they’re covering ground, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel highlights in an interview with Yahoo Finance, “we’re not solving to have the first vaccine, we want to have the best vaccine, and we want to do it safely.”

Results from ongoing research and the current understanding of COVID-19 are constantly evolving. This post contains information that was last updated on October 22, 2020.

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