Elusive mRNA Technology Leads Pfizer, Moderna To Promising Coronavirus Vaccines

As 2020 draws to a close, two American pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, have each submitted their COVID-19 vaccine candidates for emergency use authorization with the F.D.A. Both are dependent on messenger RNA (mRNA), potentially sparking a medical breakthrough.

For years, scientists have struggled to fully exploit the potential of synthetic mRNA, a genetic code of instructions that directs the body’s cells to make proteins or fight diseases, and though the technology has proven difficult in the past, collaborative initiatives spurred by the coronavirus pandemic have driven rapid advancement, leading to two vaccine candidates that could help end the global health crisis.

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The two companies have taken different approaches reaching similar conclusions: upwards of 95% efficacy with experimental vaccines that harness and utilize the elusive mRNA. Pfizer has achieved its results in collaboration with a relatively unknown German biotech company BioNTech.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Moderna is a decade-old upstart in the biotech industry, focused exclusively on mRNA technology in developing therapies and vaccines. While Pfizer has been at the head of the industry since the advent of antibiotics, contributing numerous breakthrough drugs and therapies in the last two centuries, none of Moderna’s mRNA-based drugs have received approval for human use.

Now, thanks to unprecedented cooperation between researchers across the globe, usage of the genetic instruction manual could be a gamechanger in the way vaccines and other therapies are developed. Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines appear effective despite containing none of the virus itself and are manufactured much more quickly than traditional vaccines. The possibilities for utilizing mRNA in combatting future, more challenging pathogens are suddenly available, and possibly more effective.

Moderna is one of several companies that received major funding from the U.S. Operation Warp Speed, a federal program aimed at accelerating COVID-19 vaccine development, whereas the titanic Pfizer refused federal funding for the R&D, but accepted a $2 billion pre-order contingent upon success.

Both vaccines face further challenges in the implementation stage, including limitations in ultra-cold storage and shipment in the case of Pfizer’s candidate. However, the advantages of effective mRNA therapy development, long elusive to many of the world’s greatest minds, could lead to incredible advancements in fighting infectious diseases, cancers, and other maladies for years to come. In spite of the devastation wrought by COVID-19, global health collaboration and progress could be a great beneficiary of the virus.