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April 12, 2021 - 4 min read

mRNA vaccines are a groundbreaking discovery that has revolutionized immunization

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, raised an immediate need for an effective, safe vaccine that could provide immunity against a highly destructive virus. The complex structure of the virus, including its unique spike protein, and varying effects on the body from person to person, were a few of the factors that made it challenging to develop a vaccine using traditional methods.

Due to the potential harmful effects on the body, scientists had find alternatives to weakened live virus vaccines. On the other hand, some studies showed that inactivated viral vaccines showed varying efficacy rates ranging as low as 50%.

Though never before used in the real-world setting, one type of vaccine, known as synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) which had been studied since the 1990s, was raised as a possible solution in fighting the highly contagious virus. Part of the reason the mRNA vaccines were able to be developed quickly is that the gene sequencing of the entire virus was identified and shared so scientists could more easily find pieces of it to use for the vaccines. Two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are available under the name brands Pfizer/Bio-N-Tech and Moderna in the United States.

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines work by providing the cells with a transcript to code certain proteins which then elicit an immune response. The human body produces and relies on mRNA to code for various proteins in our body integral for survival. Scientists and researchers leveraged this natural biological process to trick the body into producing proteins very similar to the spike protein on the outer layer of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These proteins are what train the body to produce antibodies, which are stored in our body and readily available if infected with the actual virus.

As with any other vaccine, the mRNA vaccine went through rigorous clinical trials consisting of thousands of study participants, globally before obtaining Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The CDC states that, that mRNA vaccines do not alter the DNA as it is unable to enter the nucleus of a cell, where DNA resides. The mRNA injected in the body cannot evolve to produce any other proteins that could potentially harm the body. It is also fragile and quickly breaks down within hours once it is used to make the proteins (such as the spike protein that helps the virus get into cells) which then go on to stimulate the immune response. The vaccine mRNA does not stay in the body forever, which is part of the reason it is unknown how long immunity will last.  It is not entirely clear why some vaccines last a lifetime and others do not.

The development of the SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine has already been monumental in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and provides opportunities for other viruses. mRNA can be used to develop a wide-range of vaccines and treatments in a short period of time and at a lower cost than traditional mechanisms. Ongoing research for RNA therapeutics brings hope for diseases such as malaria, influenza, HIV and other SARS viruses.

For essential information on vaccine distribution and administration, please visit the Broker and Employer COVID-19 Vaccine Page.

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