Ask a Scientist: Was the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines rushed?
Question: Was the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines rushed?
Dr. Mike Strong: The simple answer is no.
We have gone from identifying the SARS-CoV-2 virus to having excellent vaccine candidates ready to go very quickly--but I would definitely not say that any of this has been rushed.
There is a distinction there—between ‘quick’ and ‘rushed’—and I think it’s an important one.
That distinction exists because these vaccines that we’re seeing—the mRNA vaccines, in particular—may be new on the market, but using mRNA like this is actually not a new idea.
Let me explain.
Scientists have been working toward this type of mRNA technology for decades.
And this is where the world of what we call basic or fundamental research really shines. This is the type of research that focuses on the underlying mechanisms of biology and the cellular, molecular, and physiological basis for health and disease.
Now, this research usually doesn’t have an end goal or product in mind – and it certainly doesn’t need to – because its function is to brighten and broaden our understanding of how things work.
It’s this foundation--this fundamental research foundation--that allows scientists working in what we call applied research to tease out that knowledge and try to put it to a specific use, like new medicines and therapies.
The story of the science behind mRNA vaccines involves—well, frankly, it involves hundreds of people around the world who have worked in these fundamental and applied areas of research over time, each contributing more and more to this knowledge base, to this research evidence.
But I can share a few of the highlights.
There are a lot of places where this story could start, but let’s begin with Dr. Katalin Karikó.
- Back in the 1990s, she was a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, and she firmly believed that messenger RNA had the potential to revolutionize medicine – IF we could figure out how to inject the synthetic version into patients safely and effectively.
- Dr. Kariko spent a decade working on this idea and, along with her colleague Dr. Drew Weissman, made an incredibly important advancement in 2005.
- Basically, they had done it: they had figured out how to make synthetic messenger RNA safe for injection.
And this is where the story really builds.
Researchers publish scientific papers about their discoveries—and the work of Drs. Kariko and Weissman caught the eye of another scientist by the name of Dr. Derrick Rossi.
- Dr. Rossi, a Canadian stem cell biologist, wanted to build on this work when he opened his lab at Harvard Medical School in 2007.
- In 2009, Dr. Rossi and his team caused quite a stir because they had, indeed, built on the work of Kariko and Weissman—they had successfully used modified RNA to reprogram adult cells to make them function like embryonic stem cells.
- (That’s a story for another day, but it did lead to the creation of Moderna.)
So you can see that this interest in the therapeutic uses of RNA was starting to gain some momentum about 10-15 years ago.
At the same time, researchers were thinking ahead to how this type of material could really be used in medicine. In order to treat the patient, after all, you need to be able to get it into the patient AND make sure it goes to the right cells.
This is where innovation in the field of lipid nanoparticles comes in—and it involves the work of Canadian research heavy hitters like Dr. Pieter Cullis and his team at the University of British Columbia.
- Now, their work actually dates back to about 1980, but they turned their attention to using lipid nanoparticles for gene therapy drugs in about 1995.
- These lipid nanoparticles essentially coat the RNA in a protective bubble, like a special package, so that it can be delivered to the target cells safely and effectively.
To make a long story short, they were so successful using these nanoparticles in a gene therapy drug that they established collaborations with other companies—including BioNTech, the company in Germany that partnered with Pfizer to create one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines.
That vaccine uses their lipid nanoparticles to deliver the mRNA to your cells!
And finally, layered into all of this is the research that focused on two other coronaviruses: the one associated with the original SARS (which was recognized as a global threat in March 2003) and the one associated with MERS (which was first reported in 2012).
- Those outbreaks spurred the research that identified the now-famous “spike protein” on a coronavirus as a good one to harness for vaccine purposes.
- Without that research, particularly the discoveries that were made in just the last few years, scientists would not have had the information they needed to develop such strong vaccine candidates so quickly.
For example, take Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in the United States who co-led the development of the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19.
- In 2014, Dr. Corbett began focusing on the development of potential coronavirus vaccines—and this was work that looked at SARS and MERS specifically.
- And with those potential vaccines, she was also looking at the viability of these new vaccine technologies, like using RNA.
- When the current pandemic began, Dr. Corbett and her team were able to mobilize right away to work on a new vaccine—and they did so by using the knowledge that had been gained through years of research and experience.
And so you can see that it’s these small steps of progress that build up over time as researchers study these things and drive that evidence base forward so that other researchers can then learn from those results and incorporate that into their own work and so on and so forth.
But that’s how science works. That’s how research works. And that’s why these things are so very cool.
And because of where we are right now—because that foundation of scientific discovery and evidence was in place, because that work had been done—some very strong vaccine candidates were put forward comparatively quickly and were then rigorously tested through multi-stage clinical trials.
It’s like seeing a professional athlete playing the best game of their life: it’s spectacular, but you’re actually witnessing something that is the result of years and years of hard work—not an “overnight success.”
No, the science behind these vaccines has not been rushed.
In fact, the story behind them—and the decades of research it took to build that story—is truly remarkable.
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