Note — Apr 04, 2021

How mRNA Technology Could Change the World

Over the last year, I haven’t looked much at the basic science around the pandemic, and usually when I feature biology it has more to do with plants or fungi, but in this one by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic you’ll see why I’m interested by mRNA, it’s such an elegant idea, teaching the body to do something it’s going to need (fight COVID or potentially malaria) or something that’s afflicting it, like cancer tumours (also potentially). And as I mentioned in my summary of Chiang’s writing above, Thompson closes with a really good encapsulation of how science works.

The malaria vaccine uses self-amplifying RNA, or saRNA, which is subtly distinct from the mRNA technology used by Moderna and Pfizer. The vaccines against COVID-19 work by injecting up front all of the messenger RNA that you’re going to get. But self-amplifying RNA is designed to replicate itself inside our cells. This copy-paste function means, in theory, that each person needs only a tiny dose of vaccine to have a large immune response. […]

Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 vaccines that made it to clinical trials used technology that “could be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials.” […]

We can call our record-breaking vaccine-development process good luck. Or we can call it what it really is: a ringing endorsement for the essential role of science in the world.