Polio, measles, smallpox. Many people today don't give these deadly diseases a second thought. Since the development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, immunizations have prevented many devastating viral infections.
Humans have been creating vaccines for years, and we get at least one every year when flu season comes around. What’s special about the COVID shot?
Traditional vaccines are developed using a deactivated part of the targeted virus. Essentially, the vaccine tricks your body into thinking that you are infected. When the body detects the deactivated virus, it sends an immune response to fight off the “infection”. As a result, your body produces antibodies specific to that antigen, so that if an actual infection takes place, your body can initiate a much quicker immune response. The COVID-19 vaccine is different because it’s an RNA vaccine. The process used to develop this shot is drastically different from that of prior vaccines, and it could be the future of immunizations.
So what the heck is RNA?
Every person has a unique set of DNA that codes for genes. Genes determine everything from the color of your eyes to any allergies you might have. RNA is produced from DNA, and instead of being a code for genes, it codes for proteins. Your body uses proteins to do pretty much everything. RNA is a set of instructions that tells your body exactly how to make all these proteins. When you get an RNA vaccine, it gives your body a set of instructions to make a protein found on the surface of the targeted virus. Upon detection of that protein, the body initiates the same immune response as the one traditional vaccines generate, providing you with antibodies.
So if both types of vaccines have the same end result, antibodies, then why does the difference matter?
Before COVID-19, the fastest record for vaccine development was in the 1960s when the mumps vaccine was rolled out in just four years. Typically, traditional vaccines take up to a full decade to get developed and approved for clinical use. RNA vaccines are both faster and cheaper to develop. The COVID-19 vaccine was created in a year, at a record-breaking speed. Developing an RNA code is easier than deactivating a virus. In comparison to traditional vaccines, RNA vaccines can be adapted to different viruses much more easily. All researchers have to do is change the code and tell the body to make a different protein, as opposed to finding and deactivating a whole new virus. This can make the whole development cheaper and more efficient since the process does not require animal cells to hold deactivated viruses. The production takes only a few minutes as opposed to weeks.
If RNA vaccines are so much better, why haven’t we seen them before?
The short answer is we had, but they were overlooked. Labs have been researching RNA vaccines for years, with many ready to start human trials when the pandemic began. The newfound urgency gave rise to much greater research efforts. The demand and funding increased virtually overnight; the research paid off, and the COVID-19 vaccine was approved. RNA vaccinations are safe, and they work. The success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations could mean a new future for the RNA vaccine and the development of vaccines in general.
It's worth noting that there were some special circumstances around the coronavirus vaccine. Due to the tremendous pressure for the speedy development of a vaccine, researchers had access to far more funding than they usually did. Congress gave the Department of Health and Human Services around 6 billion dollars for research on the coronavirus, in contrast to the 23 million they designated in 2019 for the Ebola vaccine. Additionally, COVID-19 is part of a family of viruses, the Coronaviridae. Scientists already had some understanding of how this family worked, which would have made the whole process easier. These factors likely contributed to the speed the COVID-19 vaccine was approved, but still, if the RNA method could lower development time to anything less than ten years it’s an improvement.
The COVID-19 vaccine has been saving lives, and those vaccinated are less likely to contract or spread the disease. And even if they do get it, their symptoms are likely to be significantly less severe. Regardless of the circumstances that set COVID-19 apart, the success of the vaccine shows that RNA vaccines can be developed faster and more efficiently without risking the health of patients.