Seize the game-changing potential of mRNA vaccines
Awaiting a chance to prove themselves, key technological advances that enabled swift development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 stood by for years before the pandemic struck. Chief among these were mRNA-based vaccines, which stalled in early-stage development. Research funders questioned the scientific merit of novel immunological approaches; major vaccine producers doubted their profit potential. Nevertheless, a handful of innovation-seeking public-private development partnerships, fueled by hard-won support, drove novel vaccine platforms forward just as SARS-CoV-2 gripped the world.
As with much else, the COVID-19 pandemic upended vaccine research and development (R&D), leaving the world’s largest vaccine makers to play catch-up with smaller companies focused on vaccine innovation. Biotech start-ups capitalizing on cutting-edge technologies increasingly are driving vaccine development, which in turn is shedding its image as an investment backwater. Maintaining this momentum through ongoing investment in technological innovation can drive breakthroughs to thwart future pandemic threats, as well as endemic diseases that kill millions each year.
During the early months of the historic rollout of vaccines to fight COVID-19, the Sabin Vaccine Institute’s Influenzer Initiative asked experts and innovators specifically to reflect on the past, present, and game-changing future of mRNA vaccine protection against a range of viral threats, including influenza. Exciting insights from these conversations are featured in the initiative’s latest video episode.
As several of those interviewed attest, mRNA vaccines exemplify how basic discovery research coupled with targeted translational investments remain the engine of transformative innovations that save uncountable lives and immeasurably improve their quality. Eric Topol, founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute, observes that investments in immunology, virology, and molecular and structural biology provided the foundation for the rapid development of successful vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. David Topham, the founding director of the Translational Immunology and Infectious Diseases Institute at the University of Rochester, notes that vaccine platforms that have delivered us out of the current pandemic were enabled by targeted investments in nanoparticle technology.
Innovations like the COVID-19 vaccines provide benefits that extend far beyond their initial targets, such that every dollar spent on R&D yields five in return, notes economist Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University. In the case of mRNA vaccines, that beneficial ripple effect may include disarming the next pandemic threat. “Today we need methodologies that we can rapidly adapt so that when a new pathogen arises, we can make a vaccine against it,” says Teresa Lambe of Oxford University. That’s a key advantage of the mRNA platform, according to Topol. “mRNA does appear to have the ultimate flexibility,” he observes. “You go from sequence to template in a matter of hours.” SARS-CoV-2 demonstrates the value of this nimble technology, as the triumphant achievement of astonishingly effective vaccines remains threatened by the rise of potentially evasive variants—a long-standing challenge in building defenses against the next influenza pandemic.
The challenges and consequences of inequitable access to vaccines has never been more sharply evidenced than by the current pandemic. The relative simplicity of mRNA vaccine manufacturing, as compared with that of traditional vaccine approaches, offers the potential to make vaccines when and where viral threats emerge and more readily available to the people who most need them.
Vaccine manufacturing processes should be designed to be globally adaptable, Lambe argues. “All low- to middle-income countries, in fact all countries, should have the ability to make vaccines for themselves and to supply worldwide,” she says. Rajeev Venkayya, of Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, adds that decentralized vaccine production offers benefits beyond those provided by vaccines themselves. He describes how countries new to vaccine manufacturing could “leapfrog” into cutting-edge technology via mRNA vaccine production and build a new ecosystem for vaccine research, development, and distribution. The full potential of mRNA vaccines thus extends far beyond quashing pandemics. Developed and produced according to national or regional needs, mRNA vaccines can create innovative opportunity and healthier futures for people everywhere.
Decades will be spent taking the measure of the COVID-19 pandemic: calculating its toll in multiple metrics, defining its vast and diverse lessons, and recognizing the changes it catalyzed. During that time, viruses with potential to cause even greater destruction will emerge. As the recent declaration of G7 leaders emphasizes, we must act now to develop transformative, adaptable, and affordable technologies to meet these threats—a declaration that George Gao, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, insists must produce action. Among the pursuits he advocates is the exploitation of recently proven vaccine technologies to prevent another pandemic. “mRNA plus nanoparticle vaccines are two important routes for the development of novel influenza vaccines,” he says.
Novel vaccines that enable robust, globally accessible disease prevention are within reach, according to Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University. “I don’t think we’re going to be left in such a position with future emerging infectious disease emergencies,” he concludes. We take courage from these words, and those of Venkayya, who expressed his hope “that people will seize this moment to recognize that we could potentially avert the next pandemic.”