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Decades of Prior Research Paved the Way for Swift Development of COVID-19 Vaccines

by Gabriel Martinez
5 comments
mRNA vaccines development

On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was conferred upon two researchers whose groundbreaking contributions were instrumental in the creation of mRNA vaccines to combat COVID-19.

As nations are in the process of distributing these vaccines, The Big Big News revisits the rapid development trajectory of these immunizations. Here is the initial story, first made public on December 7, 2020.


One might ask how it was possible for scientists to expedite the development of COVID-19 vaccines without compromising on quality. The answer lies in over ten years of foundational research, which had positioned new vaccine technology for swift deployment at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The expeditious rollout is an outcome of years of preceding work,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ leading expert on infectious diseases, in a conversation with The Big Big News. “It’s crucial for the general populace to recognize this.”

If these vaccines maintain their efficacy in the long term, as preliminary data suggests, it would indeed be significant.

“A sense of profound elation,” is how Dr. C. Buddy Creech, a vaccine specialist at Vanderbilt University, characterized the scientific community’s sentiment when separate investigations indicated that the two vaccine candidates had an efficacy rate of approximately 95%.

“This ushers us into a new era in vaccine science, thanks to these innovative technologies,” remarked Creech during an Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing.

Both vaccines—one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and the other by Moderna in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health—are mRNA-based, utilizing a cutting-edge technology. U.S. regulatory authorities are expected to make an imminent decision regarding emergency use authorization, thereby initiating a phased rollout starting with healthcare professionals and residents of nursing homes.

Substantial financial backing from both corporate and governmental sources undeniably accelerated the vaccine development process. Furthermore, the tragically high infection rates meant that efficacy could be determined in a shorter timeframe.

Yet, even before the emergence of COVID-19, the foundational research had already been laid, primarily through two distinct lines of inquiry—one at the NIH and another at the University of Pennsylvania. This was supplemented by insights gleaned from prior outbreaks of SARS and MERS.

Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer at Moderna, based in Massachusetts, noted, “When the pandemic began, we had robust scientific groundwork and experience in dealing with mRNA.”

Conventional vaccine production involves culturing viruses or viral components—often in extensive cellular bioreactors or, in the case of most flu vaccines, chicken eggs—followed by a purification process.

The mRNA methodology is a departure from this. It employs a fragment of genetic code, which encodes instructions for protein synthesis. Choosing the correct viral protein to target effectively transforms the human body into a micro-scale vaccine manufacturing unit.

Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania stated, “Instead of culturing a virus in large industrial reactors and subsequently inactivating it, we can introduce RNA, prompting our bodies to initiate the immune response.”

A decade and a half ago, Weissman’s lab aimed to utilize mRNA for a range of pharmaceutical applications. However, direct injection of the genetic material into animals led to harmful inflammation. A breakthrough came when Weissman and Katalin Kariko, now with BioNTech, engineered a minute modification to a constituent of synthetic RNA, allowing it to bypass inflammatory markers.

This alteration facilitated the creation of what Dr. Philip Dormitzer, Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer, termed “stealth RNA.” Additional modifications included a lipid nanoparticle coating, aiding the stealth RNA in entering cells and commencing protein production.

At the NIH, Dr. Barney Graham’s team pinpointed the optimal target: the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus, which is essential for priming the immune system correctly. Understanding the intricate configurations of this protein was vital, given that surface proteins permitting various viruses to attach to human cells are highly mutable.

In 2013, Graham, deputy director of NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, along with colleague Jason McLellan, discovered how to stabilize the appropriate structure of an RSV protein, a finding they later applied to other viruses, including MERS. This was the cornerstone that enabled accelerated development when the COVID-19 pandemic commenced.

Both Pfizer and BioNTech had prior experience with mRNA technology due to their partnership in 2018 focused on creating a modern mRNA-based flu vaccine.

Dr. Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, quickly pivoted the company’s focus to COVID-19 vaccine development as soon as reports about the new coronavirus surfaced in China last January. Meanwhile, Moderna had been making strides with mRNA vaccines against other pathogens, including the Zika virus, though progress had been slow due to waning urgency following the Zika outbreak.

The race for a COVID-19 vaccine was set in motion when, on January 11, Dr. Barney Graham of the NIH discovered that Chinese scientists had released the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus. Within days, the precisely engineered spike protein data was sent to Moderna, marking the formal initiation of vaccine development efforts.


The Big Big News Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP maintains exclusive responsibility for the content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about mRNA vaccines development

What is the primary focus of this article?

The article primarily focuses on the rapid development of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, elucidating how years of foundational research enabled scientists to quickly produce effective vaccines once the pandemic began.

How did prior research contribute to the rapid development of mRNA vaccines?

The rapid development of mRNA vaccines was possible due to over a decade of foundational scientific research. This previous work had already resolved many technological and methodological challenges, such as dealing with harmful inflammation caused by mRNA and identifying optimal protein targets for the immune response. This groundwork placed researchers in a position to expedite vaccine development when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.

Who are the key experts cited in the article?

The article cites several key experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert; Dr. C. Buddy Creech, a vaccine specialist at Vanderbilt University; Dr. Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer of Moderna; and Dr. Barney Graham of the National Institutes of Health, among others.

What was the role of financial backing in the vaccine development?

Financial support from both governmental and corporate entities significantly accelerated the development process. This funding allowed for more extensive research and quicker efficacy assessments, particularly due to the high rate of COVID-19 infections.

What novel technology did the vaccines use?

The vaccines utilized messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, a revolutionary approach differing from traditional methods of vaccine production that often involve culturing and purifying viruses or viral components.

Were there any prior outbreaks that informed current mRNA vaccine development?

Yes, insights from prior outbreaks of coronaviruses like SARS and MERS were valuable in laying the foundational research for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.

What were the main scientific breakthroughs that made mRNA vaccines possible?

The main scientific breakthroughs included the development of ‘stealth RNA’ that could bypass inflammatory markers, lipid nanoparticle coatings that aided in cellular entry, and the precise identification and engineering of the coronavirus ‘spike’ protein to properly prime the immune system.

What regulatory steps are pending for these vaccines?

The article mentions that U.S. regulatory authorities are in the process of deciding whether to grant emergency use authorization for these mRNA vaccines. Once authorized, a phased rollout would begin, starting with healthcare professionals and nursing home residents.

More about mRNA vaccines development

  • mRNA Technology and Vaccines
  • The Role of NIH in Vaccine Development
  • Insights from Dr. Anthony Fauci on COVID-19
  • Overview of Previous Coronavirus Outbreaks
  • Understanding Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines
  • Financial Backing in Vaccine Development
  • Moderna’s Previous Research on mRNA
  • BioNTech and Pfizer Partnership on mRNA Vaccines

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5 comments

Emily R October 3, 2023 - 11:04 am

it’s a relief to know that the vaccines weren’t just rushed. Feels like there’s more substance behind it all, you know? Good read!

Reply
John Smith October 3, 2023 - 3:27 pm

I’m blown away by how mRNA tech has evolved. This is like Sci-fi becoming reality. Also, big ups to the experts cited here. Learned a lot from them.

Reply
Sarah J October 3, 2023 - 4:53 pm

Wow, never knew so much went into making these vaccines. And here i thought they just cooked it up in a year. Eye-opening stuff!

Reply
Tom H October 3, 2023 - 5:23 pm

Funding clearly played a massive role here. Just goes to show what can be accomplished when both government and private sectors invest in science.

Reply
Mike D October 3, 2023 - 5:53 pm

Seriously impressive how science had a head start because of past research. Respect to all those scientists who were laying the groundwork, not even knowing how crucial their work would be.

Reply

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