My article for Spectator:
Almost 60 years ago, in February 1961, two teams of scientists stumbled on a discovery at the same time. Sydney Brenner in Cambridge and Jim Watson at Harvard independently spotted that genes send short-lived RNA copies of themselves to little machines called ribosomes where they are translated into proteins. ‘Sydney got most of the credit, but I don’t mind,’ Watson sighed last week when I asked him about it.
The message tells the cell to make part of one of the virus’s proteins which then alerts the body’s immune system. Once invented, the thing is like a general-purpose vaccine. You simply rewrite the message between the same opening and closing sequences, put it in the same kind of bubble, and fire it off — almost as easy for genetic engineers these days as writing a text is for teenagers. It is faster, cheaper, safer and simpler than the old ways of making vaccines.
More conventional vaccine designs may still make a vital contribution to defeating the pandemic, Oxford’s included. And the messenger method has its drawbacks, such as the need for extreme cold storage. But in the long run, messengers probably represent the future of vaccines. Now the principle has been approved by regulators, there may be no need to go through the same laborious and expensive three-phase clinical trials every time. Faced with a truly lethal pandemic — with a 10 per cent mortality rate, say — the vanishingly small likelihood that a new messenger vaccine would be unsafe pales into insignificance. You could deploy it in weeks or days.
What is more, at the cost of a few billion dollars, the world may now be able to build a library of messenger vaccines for every plausible coronavirus and influenza virus with pandemic potential we can find, test them in animals and store the recipes on a hard disk, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Moderna’s vaccine was first synthesised in mid-January, before we even knew the coronavirus was coming out of China.
I’m on a drug which is a monoclonal antibody designed to attack a specific antigen on my cancer. Other treatments involve taking T cells and modifying them so they’ll attack cancer. Why not program a mRNA vaccine to attack those same antigens?