April 11, 2021

COVID-19

mRNA vaccine technology

Science builds on science

Read Time 3 minutes

In science, breakthroughs may appear to be spontaneous, but they rarely (if ever) are. Take for example the synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology brought to the forefront of public attention with the success of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Many of us may be hearing about mRNA vaccines (or mRNA, period) for the first time in the context of COVID-19, but this article discusses the history and ongoing research of the technology. It makes four important points about the development of mRNA technology that I outline below. 

First, as much as mRNA vaccine technology may seem like brand-spanking-new, cutting-edge innovation that appeared out of nowhere, it is neither uncharted nor untested technology. Possibilities for synthetic mRNA have been the focus of decades-long scientific research. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were able to produce their respective vaccines as quickly as they did because both companies had invested in research on mRNA-based treatments long before COVID-19 appeared on the scene. BioNTech and Moderna have been around for 13 and 11 years, respectively. 

Second, there are other RNA-based vaccine applications in ongoing research that preceded the widespread use of COVID-19. RNA-based technology is used in a recent malaria vaccine patent and BioNTech uses the technology in its cancer immunotherapy research where the mRNA vaccine is individually adapted to target specific tumor mutations. Basically, the idea is to use synthetic mRNA to create antigens unique to a person’s cancer such that their immune system can recognize and react to the cancer, just as it would a cell infected by a virus (Personally, I am less optimistic that mRNA tumor vaccines will fare much better than their historical counterparts, but if they are going to work, I suspect it will be in the adjuvant setting, as opposed to in a neoadjuvant setting used before a primary treatment, or in an advanced, metastatic setting). In another example of mRNA vaccine research that preceded COVID-19, Pfizer-BioNTech had already been working on mRNA-based seasonal influenza vaccine research, so the collaborative effort could swiftly shift its focus to SARS-CoV-2 research. I previously spoke about mRNA vaccines in a conversation with Paul Offit and we continued the discussion about the future of the technology in second conversation

Third, the success of the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines does not guarantee success in other applications. In other words, the technology is not a panacea. It could be that SARS-CoV-2 is the perfect viral candidate, for a few reasons. Given their prior mRNA research, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech already understood how to edit the mRNA molecule with the selected SARS-CoV-2 viral protein. And they had the full genome as it was made available by Chinese researchers in early January 2020. Researchers had the benefit of understanding the pathogen’s characteristic spike protein thanks to prior investigation of the structure following the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak in 2012. The mRNA technology worked for COVID-19, but that does not mean it will work against other viruses.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the clinical success and rapidity of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine development demonstrates an important scientific paradigm: science builds on science.      

The success of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is a product of previous research and what might seem like failures. The mRNA vaccine strategy itself, which was used in this case to code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and instruct the immune system to recognize and respond against it, has an extensive developmental history paved with trials and failures. Previous research “failings” of successful synthetic mRNA application paved the way for better understanding and new application pursuits. One editorial contends that the failures to produce an HIV vaccine were neither a waste of time nor economic resources because they propelled innovative advances which led to effective antiviral vaccines like the one for COVID-19. For example, a candidate HIV vaccine that works would be protected by patent, but when it fails competitors learn from what didn’t work so there is a positive externality, a knowledge spillover. More specifically, a line of research from failed HIV vaccines laid the foundational understanding for the vaccine model that uses a purified viral protein, as in the case of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Scientific investigation has a compounding effect that way, where current areas of research are informed by and born from past learnings. To me, the current success of mRNA technology in COVID-19 vaccines calls into question what scientific “failure” actually means. It is a truism by now, but given how success is made possible by understanding how something doesn’t work, prior failings may be more aptly referred to as the ruling out of possibilities. Even if it didn’t hit the bullseye, what didn’t work got a process down the road a bit closer to potential success.

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
  1. This is all and good. But there is a surfeit of happy talk here. Long ago Penicillin was a wonder drug. Until it wasn’t. There was “gorillamycin” until MRSA.

    None of these “vaccines” are FDA Approved. None. They are all EUA Authorized. When will they go back and approve these? These are all new “medical devices.” New technology. All the RT-PCR tests are EUA authorized.

    And if these are all so amazingly effective then why are medical personnel still required to wear full PPE protection? Dining rooms and surgical suites are still off limits.

    No, major controversies exist without a free exchange of ideas and debate. This is more about social conformity than good solid medical practice and epidemiology.

    We have never stamped out influenza. Nor malaria or TB which is just as deadly.

    • Thank you Dr. Miller. I am concerned that so many doctors fail to see the simplicity of what you speak. The developers don’t even make the claim that these supposed vaccines confer immunity or prevent transmission, so people are still held in the clutches of fear of infection and afraid to live a life worth living. The simple truth is these injections would not exist but for the giving of $billions through “Operation Warp Speed” and why not for the drug companies? They get the cash to make the injection, have no liability for injuries and death under the PREP Act, and they have a promised massive future income stream that will come from the need for yearly or more often re-vaccinations. What are we doing to ourselves? The EUA continued use of these injections would stop if the emergency ended and could only be used then if there was official FDA approval so the emergency must continue if the mass immunization scheme is to continue. Entered the PCR test that also only has EUA approval. Such a technology was never intended and cannot diagnose an illness but that doesn’t stop those who claim so and the actions that flow from it. These tests ability to detect the viral nucleic acid are dependent on the Cycle Thresholds that are used to evaluate the sample. They only allow for reporting of binary results, “positive” or “negative” and when evaluated with Cycle Thresholds over 20, the “false positives” increase until when over 35 there are 97% false positives but the tragedy is there is no way to report that and the “false negatives” are reported as “positives” and the pandemic continues. It will only go away if someone decides to standardize and read at 17 CT but will that ever happen? This whole thing has the odor of rotting tuna.

    • Dr. Miller, You call your self a doctor, but you ask such layman questions, in re:
      “And if these are all so amazingly effective then why are medical personnel still required to wear full PPE protection?”
      of course, the answer is because while the vaccinated are protected from infection, there is no data (yet) evidencing/proving that vaccinated can/do not harbor and shed viral particles to infect others that are not vaccinated. So, they/we still must wear PPE until that is proved not an issue. You should know that the immune system finds it very hard, if not impossible, to reach virus present in the upper respiratory track, outside of the mucus membranes.

      “Dining rooms and surgical suites are still off limits.”
      same reason, until heard immunity is reach (e.g., 70+% immunity rate), which may not happen for a very long time in red states b/c they mostly refuse to get vaccinated thanks to Trump (et. al.) politicizing masks and COVID pandemic as a ‘hoax’.

      glad you are a an Attia member, so you can learn to up your MD game…

  2. How about balancing this perspective with a discussion of possible longer-term risks?

  3. If the mRNA vaccine is attacking the spike protein, does that mean that all of these variants have different spike proteins?
    If not, why are they talking about needing more vaccines to deal with the variants?

    • That’s a good question. I have read that the variations still have >98%-ish genetics common and have not affected the spike protein sequence.

  4. I would like to see Dr. Attia address the comments of the inventor of the the mRNA vaccine, Robert Malone on his comments and evidence showing how the “vaccine” creates a free moving toxic S1 protien that can penetrate all tissues of the body leading to strokes, heart attacks, neuro degenerative disorders along with many other odd reactions. Plus, combined with the work of Steve Kirtch and the growing “reports of the crazy adverse reactions not getting recognized by the big organizations that shove the vaccine down our throats despite knowing drugs like ivermectin work extremely well with almost no risk.
    Check out the Darkhorse podcast if you want the info from the horses mouth.

    • Spoiler: Robert Malone did not “invent” the mRNA vaccine. At best he, along with 100s of others, helped perfect it. He certainly didn’t invent it.

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