COVID Vaccine Technology Paves the Way for New Path in Medicine

There are lessons, both positive and negative, that we have learned since COVID-19 entered our lives more than two years ago. One of the positive lessons is the development of the COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA technology. Not only have researchers found a way to protect those who choose to get vaccinated against more serious diseases, but they may have also opened the door to using mRNA technology for other vaccines and treatments.

Shore Medical Center Infectious Disease Division Chief Dr. Christopher Lucasti said, “The mRNA technology has been around for 30 years but has not been able to complete the process. Operation Warp Speed helped with the rapid development of the COVID vaccine. By putting the funding in place, drug manufacturers like Pfizer were able to focus on their different phases and accomplish in nine months what would normally take five to ten years.” Dr. Lucasti led the only Pfizer clinical trial in the Philadelphia region last year for the COVID-19 vaccine. He has been a leader in multiple clinical drug trials for more than 25 years. 

Operation Warp Speed began in May 2020 bringing research teams together to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine. The United States committed $18 billion dollars for research to develop a vaccine along with orders to purchase 455 million doses once it became available.  Operation Warp Speed transitioned to the White House COVID-19 Response Team in February 2021. 

How mRNA vaccines work
Dr. Lucasti explained, “There is no live virus in the COVID-19 vaccine. The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine makes it possible for our own body to fight the disease. The body has its own mRNA inside of cells,” said Dr. Lucasti. “Think of mRNA as a set of instructions. Your cells use these instructions to make proteins that your body needs. By coding the mRNA vaccines, it can instruct your cells to make certain proteins. The COVID-19 vaccine instructs the cells to make a protein of the SARS-Co-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). It will trigger the immune system and create antibodies to fight against the virus should you encounter it in the future.” 

The vaccine is not a cure for COVID-19 according to Dr. Lucasti. Rather, it helps to shield those who are vaccinated from more serious illnesses from the virus. “While the omicron variant has been highly transmissible, those who are vaccinated and are exposed to omicron were able to fight it, and those who did contract the virus after being vaccinated typically have mild, cold-like symptoms that lasted only a few days, “according to Dr. Lucasti. Those who remain unvaccinated are still experiencing significant sickness from COVID-19. 

The mRNA vaccine is also advantageous because it can be mass produced. The COVID-19 vaccines were mass produced in advance of getting the emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so that they could be made available to the public as soon as it was approved. 

Other studies using mRNA technology
Manufacturers like Pfizer, Moderna, and CureVac, a German company that specializes in mRNA technology, are seeking other uses to help in the fight against disease around the globe. Currently, CureVac is in phase one clinical trials of a rabies vaccine for healthy adults ages 18-40. 

The use of mRNA vaccine technology could be very useful in future flu vaccines. According to Dr. Lucasti, the current flu vaccines have an efficacy between 40-60% when the flu virus strains in the vaccine are closely matched to those circulating in the population. Utilizing the mRNA vaccine may have the potential to improve the efficacy of flu vaccines by encoding it. “The companies were working on this even before COVID-19,” said Dr. Lucasti.  

There is promising phase two testing for HIV vaccines according to Dr. Lucasti, and even cancer therapies. As he explained, the mRNA technology would not be used as a vaccine for cancers but rather as a means to allow for more effective and targeted treatment of certain cancers. There are studies underway to combine a COVID-19 vaccine with the flu vaccine so that people would be able to get one shot and be protected against both. 

Exciting horizon 
Dr. Lucasti said, “This is a pretty exciting time in research as we are working very hard to find treatments and cures for viruses and illnesses. There continues to be testing on pills and oral antivirals to shorten the duration and the severity of viruses as well as vaccines.”