The scientific link between Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID vaccines

November 12, 2020, 10:02 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

Has it really only been a week? The four-day wait for the presidential election results (and the aftermath) certainly made it seem much longer.

And as if the tumultuous political news weren’t enough to keep us occupied, we were treated to news of major advances for Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID vaccine, which the companies announced is 90% effective against coronavirus.

There’s still some data parsing to do on that claim, including whether or not different subgroups across demographics respond to the vaccine candidate differently than others. But with Wednesday’s news that another company, the biotech Moderna, is also close to releasing its own positive COVID vaccine data, it’s worth exploring the technologies which unite these two therapies: messenger RNA (mRNA).

The science behind these vaccine is just, well, cool. There has never been an mRNA-based therapeutic approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and as little as a year ago, many in the biotech sphere were skeptical it would ever work.

“RNA vaccines work by introducing an mRNA sequence (the molecule which tells cells what to build) which is coded for a disease specific antigen, once produced within the body, the antigen is recognized by the immune system, preparing it to fight the real thing,” according to the University of Cambridge.

In plainer English: mRNA has the ability to turn your own cells into a therapy-building machine. (For more on the science behind the leading COVID vaccine candidates, you can check out my explainer from last week.)

This comes with its own set of problems. For instance, these vaccines made of precious biological material require refrigeration at ultra-cool temperatures, which could present a major logistical nightmare for Pfizer and Moderna when it comes to distribution.

And then there’s the fact that both of these vaccines require two doses spaced several weeks apart, which could make present its own logistical challenges.

Still, the progress for this new type of science is more than welcome after months of false starts for various COVID therapies.

None other than Dr. Anthony Fauci himself expects the Moderna data to come in strong in the coming weeks, saying he would “be surprised if we didn’t see a similar degree of efficacy” to Pfizer’s candidate during an event with the Financial Times on Monday.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee


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