Are mRNA vaccines better than conventional vaccines?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

mRNA feature image-ImResizer

Are mRNA vaccines better than conventional vaccines?

It’s a scene straight out of a science fiction staple: There are these huge bio-secure labs using millions of chicken eggs to grow viruses.  There is a leak and what ensues is an unmitigated epidemiological disaster.

Fortunately, in recent times, major vaccine testing facilities have the highest security standards. While the purpose is noble, healthcare organizations need to undergo rigorous testing before a vaccine is deemed safe and efficacious. It’s something of a miracle that we were able to roll out vaccines so quickly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In essence, it is the human body’s ability to respond and recognize proteins created by disease producing pathogens is the principle that vaccines work on.  Conventional vaccines consist of tiny, inactivated doses of the entire disease-causing organism, or the proteins secreted by the disease-causing pathogen in focus, and this is administered to the body to stimulate an immune response.

However conventional vaccine approaches have their limitations such as the rigorous testing needed and certain people with compromised immune systems no longer being ideal candidates as well as limitations to scaling up production quickly (as was observed during the recent pandemic).  This is where messenger RNA or mRNA vaccines come in.

So, what are mRNA vaccines and how are they better?

All living cells contain ribonucleic acid (abbreviated RNA), a nucleic acid with properties comparable to those of DNA. Translation is the major way that RNA makes proteins. RNA transmits genetic information that ribosomes interpret into a variety of proteins required for biological functions. The three primary RNA subtypes involved in protein synthesis are mRNA, rRNA, and tRNA.

In contrast, mRNA vaccines deceive the body into creating some of the viral proteins on its own. They function by employing messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, which is the molecule that essentially carries out DNA instructions. MRNA serves as a blueprint for the construction of proteins inside of cells. An mRNA is essentially like a protein’s pre-form, and its sequence encodes the building blocks of the protein.

An mRNA vaccine is created by scientists using a synthetic copy of the mRNA that viruses use to create their infectious proteins. When this mRNA is introduced into the human body, cells interpret it as a set of instructions for the construction of the viral protein and produce some of the virus’ components. Because they are solitary, these proteins cannot come together to form viruses. Following the discovery of these viral proteins, the immune system begins to mount a defence against them.

mRNA vaccines are safer and can trigger a better immune response

Our immune system is composed of two components: innate (the defences we are born with) and acquired (which we develop as we come into contact with pathogens). Traditional vaccine molecules often only affect the acquired immune system; an additional component known as an adjuvant activates the innate immune system. It’s interesting to note that mRNA in vaccines may potentially activate the innate immune system, adding an additional line of defence without the use of adjuvants.

The immune system can focus on developing a response to the viral proteins without interference from the virus because you are not introducing the entire virus into the body, which prevents the virus from mounting its own self-defense.

MRNA vaccines eliminate some of the production steps and should be simpler and quicker to make than conventional vaccines because they induce the human body to produce the viral proteins on its own. The main advantage in this circumstance is that production is simple, and scaling up production should be very simple as well.

Are mRNA vaccines really better than conventional vaccines?

We are still in the early stages of testing mRNA vaccines in humans and there are still some unknowns that would require further human trials. It is yet to be ascertained if mRNA vaccines can impel an adequate immune response vis-à-vis its conventional vaccine counterparts.

There are still many unanswered questions, such as whether the proteins chosen for the vaccine are the best ones to prevent a coronavirus infection in the body, how targeted the immune response is to this specific coronavirus, how long any immunity would last, and whether it has side effects like increased inflammatory responses like redness and swelling or, in the worst case, exacerbates the condition.

However, mRNA vaccines are easier to scale up in terms of production and may hold the key to a faster and more efficacious manner of vaccination.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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