The development of the first covid vaccines may have seemed to occur at a dizzying pace. After all, scientists identified a new virus and created vaccines to protect against its most severe effects within a year.
But the research underpinning these vaccines isn’t that new at all, vaccine experts say. Some of it is decades old. This foundation, combined with technical expertise, urgency and financial resources, enabled scientists to pull off the medical marvel.
“The reason it was so fast is money and work,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Leveraging mRNA: A Technique as Old as Millennials
Covid mRNA vaccines use the human body’s natural immune response to its advantage. The shot contains the recipe for making the molecule known as the spike protein, which the covid virus uses to bind to cells. Once the cell receives these instructions, it creates the protein and displays it on its surface. The immune system then spots the unknown protein and makes antibodies to fight it.
The vaccines made by the companies Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna use this technology, which stems from research that began in the early ’90s, said Dr. Drew Weissman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. It has been tested against other viruses like influenza. Scientists learned from previous clinical trials and have since worked to perfect the use of mRNA, he said. Previous…