- Moderna’s mRNA technology was so effective in its COVID-19 vaccine that the company is using the same approach to develop vaccines against other viruses like flu and HIV.
- Unlike traditional vaccines, the mRNA technology can build proteins that teach the immune system to recognize a virus — it’s more effective against variants.
- If successful, the COVID-19 pandemic may have provided scientists with the tools to combat viruses that have been plaguing humans for decades.
The astonishing success of COVID-19 vaccines may signal a breakthrough in disease prevention technology.
Moderna is developing influenza and HIV vaccines using mRNA technology, the backbone of its effective COVID-19 vaccine. The biotech company is expected to launch phase 1 trials for its mRNA flu and HIV vaccines this year. If successful, mRNA may offer a silver lining to the decades-long fight against HIV, influenza, and other autoimmune diseases.
What Makes mRNA-based Vaccines Special?
Traditional vaccines often introduce a weakened or inactive virus to one’s body. In contrast, mRNA technology uses genetic blueprints, which build proteins to train the immune system to fight off the virus.1
Since mRNA teaches the body to recognize a virus, it can be effective against multiple strains or variants as opposed to just one.
“The mRNA platform makes it easy to develop vaccines against variants because it just requires an update to the coding sequences in the mRNA that code for the variant,” Rajesh Gandhi, MD, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and chair of HIV Medicine association, tells Verywell.
Future mRNA vaccines have the potential to ward off multiple diseases with one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).2 Current mRNA vaccines, as demonstrated in their use against COVID-19, already appear to be less susceptible to new variants.
“Based on its success in protecting against COVID-19, I am hopeful that mRNA technology will revolutionize our ability to develop vaccines against other pathogens, like HIV and influenza,” Gandhi says.
Moderna’s flu and HIV vaccines are still in early development stages, having yet to undergo their clinical trials. Still, if they prove successful, the mRNA-based treatment could dramatically change health care — both in expediting the route to immunity and by providing a solution to illnesses that have been around for decades.
Scientists currently make annual alterations to the typical flu shot to keep up with the viruses in circulation. But a successful mRNA vaccine could provide a far more effective alternative.
An approved mRNA flu vaccine could be administered every other year rather than annually, virologist Andrew Pekosz, PhD tells Verywell. This is because mRNA accounts for variants and produces a stronger and longer-lasting immune response than that of the current flu vaccine, he says.
The influenza vaccine is similar to the COVID-19 vaccine because the viruses have similar characteristics and necessary treatments, according to Pekosz.
However, a potential concern lies in the level of public immunity prior to receiving a vaccine. Since the flu has been around since the early 1900s, an mRNA vaccine could potentially boost older or less effective antibody responses rather than targeting current strains, Pekosz adds.
“There’s no way to answer that question except to do some clinical trials, and see what the results tell us,” Pekosz says.
Scientists have not developed a cure for HIV since the virus first surfaced 40 years ago. An mRNA vaccine would be a long-awaited breakthrough, but many variables in its development remain unknown.
Data suggests that immunizing people against HIV requires not only antibodies, but also targeting specific T cells, which help coordinate the body’s immune response, he adds.
“[mRNA] is a good platform to try against HIV,” Pekosz says. “But because the immunity that you need to protect from HIV is a little bit different from what you need from flu and COVID-19, it’s more important to do the large scale trials to really see how effective it could be.”
For decades, researchers have been studying mRNA vaccines for viruses like Zika, Rabies, and even the flu.1 But the technology hasn’t been used on humans until 2020 for COVID-19.
The restraints were largely due to the lengthy testing requirements mandated prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. To curb the spread of the coronavirus, the FDA accelerated vaccine licensure and helped facilitate a timely development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Virologists like Pekosz say they hope that we can learn from the pandemic and continue to pursue fast-paced, effective vaccine protection.
“COVID-19 showed us what we can do if we want to move a vaccine forward quickly,” Pekosz says, adding that the data from COVID-19 vaccinations may help biotech companies move other candidate vaccines through the pipeline.
Published:Jun 23, 2021 at 12:00 PM