The Nature of Things·In Depth

How COVID-19 mRNA vaccines were created in under a year and what it means for the future of disease

Scientists dropped everything to focus on a COVID-19 vaccine. Its success will change the future of medicine

Scientists dropped everything to focus on a COVID-19 vaccine. Its success will change the future of medicine

Scientists dropped everything to focus on a COVID-19 vaccine. Its success will change the future of medicine (Frauke Bönsch)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the novel coronavirus was a problem confined to Wuhan, China, scientists in Canada and around the globe had already mobilized to develop a vaccine. Today, researchers are working on a universal coronavirus vaccine to get ahead of future pandemics. 

How scientists created a vaccine at lightning speed

In January 2020, Canadians were not aware that the virus making headlines would cause a global pandemic. At that time, the threat was far from most Canadians' minds. But many experts saw the warning signs and knew they had to get to work as soon as possible. 

Canadian virologist and vaccine researcher Alyson Kelvin made the difficult decision to leave her husband and two young daughters in Halifax to work on a vaccine at VIDO-InterVac, a high-security lab at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

"Despite the sacrifices, I would have felt useless being at home," said Kelvin. "If I'm not doing this work, I'm not contributing. And the only place to do that was here."

VIDO-InterVac is one of the largest biocontainment labs in the world. "I [didn't] fear getting COVID," she said in an email. "VIDO has rigorous safety protocols, PPE and facility infrastructure."

Meanwhile, documentary filmmakers realized they needed to get out on the road and track the development of several vaccines at the same time. Inside the Great Vaccine Race, a documentary from The Nature of Things, follows researchers around the world, including Kelvin, as they raced to develop a safe and effective vaccine at lightning speed. 

The documentary features the story of the German company BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to create the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (now known as Comirnaty). It would become one of the most recognizable COVID vaccines in the world and one of just two mRNA vaccines available. 

VIDEO: How do mRNA vaccines work? What's so special about mRNA vaccines?

What exactly is an mRNA vaccine? - Inside the Great Vaccine Race

1 year ago
Duration 0:39
What's so special about mRNA technology, and why are they different from traditional vaccines?

Before COVID-19, BioNTech had spent decades developing an mRNA vaccine for cancer treatment and even partnered with Pfizer in 2018 to develop mRNA flu vaccines. They were able to pivot and start working on a COVID vaccine almost immediately. 

"We have a special situation here," BioNTech CEO and co-founder Dr. Uğur Şahin said in the film. "It is the worst pandemic in the last at least 50 years — maybe in the last 100 years — and we have … the ability to react fast."

Şahin and his wife, Dr. Özlem Türeci, co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, worked together to develop the vaccine. At the time, they had no idea their vaccine would become such a success.

"We don't have time to waste" - Inside the Great Vaccine Race

1 year ago
Duration 1:08
Drs. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci founded their company BioNTech, to develop a breakthrough cancer treatment - RNA vaccines. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they realized they could pivot to save millions of lives, but they had to act fast.

The team initially developed 20 formulations. They settled on a front-runner during Phase 1 trials, and moving through Phase 1 and 2 trials quickly was key to their success. The Phase 3 trials conducted in Brazil and other countries showed incredible results, with the vaccine proving to be 95 per cent effective against the virus. 

BioNTech is still developing its revolutionary cancer treatment, and in June, the first patient was given an mRNA cancer vaccine in a Phase 2 clinical trial. 

MRNA vaccines: The start of a medical revolution

Beyond COVID and cancer treatments, mRNA vaccines, like the one also produced by Moderna, are versatile and have shown promise for protecting against other infectious diseases. Fundamentally, the treatments employ messenger RNA to make specific proteins or antigens of a pathogen, and trigger an immune response in the body. 

While mRNA research began decades ago, scientists are now realizing how flexible the technology can be and are excited by the potential. Diseases such as hepatitis B, cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis are just a few of the possible targets of mRNA treatment, and researchers are also looking at whether the technology can be used in vaccines against HIV, zika, dengue and herpes. 

Will mRNA spark a medical revolution? The idea is gaining traction. "There are so many more things we can do," Şahin said in an interview with Wired in March. "We will be coming up with other new medical innovations that wouldn't otherwise be possible." 

The holy grail of vaccines

Although the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered widely in Canada, the work for vaccine researchers is far from finished. With new variants of concern spreading, researchers aim to stay two steps ahead of the virus. And as we round the corner on the current pandemic, some people may be worried if we're prepared for the next one. 

Some of the most exciting new research is looking into a pan-coronavirus vaccine — one that could protect against all coronaviruses. Kelvin's team and others are already researching the possibilities.

"I have been working on universal vaccines for influenza viruses for 10 years now," she said. "So when SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] emerged, I saw patterns with [the] viruses and constant re-emergence [and] I noted a universal, or pan-, vaccine was needed."

Kelvin's team is currently working on ways to use a person's immune system to develop "a more broadly protective vaccine" against respiratory viruses. With a single shot, humans could be protected against all types of coronaviruses or influenza viruses whether they've appeared in the population or not. 

As we acknowledge the success of COVID-19 vaccines and mRNA technology, we can also look forward to promising new vaccine research. With universal vaccines and more widespread use of mRNA (and DNA) technology on the horizon, it's possible that coronaviruses, influenza and many other diseases will be much easier to fight.

To learn more about how the vaccines were created and the future of vaccine research, watch Inside the Great Vaccine Race on The Nature of Things.

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