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Episode #78 - mRNA technologies

2 September 2022 | Science conversation

Summary

mRNA technologies. What is their future and scope, and what are the challenges that countries might face
in rolling them out? Hello and welcome to Science in5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. We are talking to Dr.
Soumya Swaminathan today. Soumya, talk to us about mRNA technologies. What is the future?

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

mRNA technologies. What is their future and scope, and what are the challenges that countries might face
in rolling them out? Hello and welcome to Science in5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. We are talking to Dr.
Soumya Swaminathan today. Soumya, talk to us about mRNA technologies. What is the future?

Dr Soumya Swaminathan.

I think everybody around the world now has heard of mRNA. It stands for messenger RNA, and basically
it's part of our cellular architecture. The RNA molecule is a sort of translator. You can think of it as a
waiter who takes the order from the DNA - that is the customer, and takes it to the kitchen, that then
prepares the food or the proteins in the cell. So this technology has actually been worked on for the last 30
years, but it's only during this pandemic that we realize a full potential of it.

And billions of people around the world now have received an mRNA vaccine. So apart from COVID
vaccines, the technology can be used to make vaccines for many other diseases, and many of them are
already quite advanced. We've got vaccines for influenza, for other viruses, like the respiratory syncytial
virus, for Lassa fever, for example, but also to try and develop better vaccines for malaria, for TB, for
HIV, and then beyond infectious diseases this technology is now being used by some companies and centers to target cancers, because we know that for many cancers now, once you identify the genetic change in the cancer, you can actually try and target the treatment for that. So again, very exciting opportunities for treatment of human and probably
animal diseases as well.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Soumya, talk to us about the challenges that countries might face when rolling out these technologies.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan

The first one, of course, is the access to the vaccine. And we've seen that there have been global
inequities. And even today, over 75% of Africans have not been fully vaccinated. So this is a challenge,
and we're trying to meet that through expanding manufacturing around the world, through our mRNA
technology transfer program, so that hopefully in the next couple of years, we will have much more
diversified capacity, both for R&D and for manufacturing. The second challenge is really getting health
systems up to speed and able to vaccinate, populations at a scale that hasn't been done before.

We've never vaccinated adults the way that we're doing now. And to cover the whole world's population
means that you need the human resources, the financial resources, the technical know-how, but also the
the supply chain. So all of these need investment, need planning and need support. And the third set of
challenges is around vaccine acceptance or vaccine hesitancy. And there's been a lot of misinformation
being spread around mRNA in particular, because it's a new technology and somehow it looks like there's
some changes to the genetic structure of our bodies, which is certainly not the case.

As I said, it only takes the message, it takes the protein sequence and tells the cell, go ahead and make the
spike protein, and then the mRNA itself gets disintegrated in our bodies very quickly.

Vismita Gupta-Smith
Soumya, talk to us about the safety of mRNA vaccines.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan

So the safety of vaccines is given a lot of importance by WHO and also by regulatory agencies, because
vaccines are given to healthy people to prevent disease, to prevent infections. And therefore, there's been
a lot of data collected. And as you know, billions of people have now received these vaccines around the
world. And we've looked at the benefit-risk profile. In terms of mRNA vaccines, yes, you get the usual
side effects initially of fever, headache, fatigue, some pain at the injection site.
These usually subside within 24 hours or so. Very rarely you can get what is called myocarditis, which is
inflammation of the heart muscles. This has been observed again, it's very rare, but it's been seen among
young men, mostly 15 to 30 years of age, usually after the second dose of the mRNA. In almost all the
cases, it's been mild and self-limiting with full recovery. And the fact is that the COVID infection itself
causes myocarditi, 4 times more common than has been seen after vaccination.
So it's actually much worse to get myocarditis from COVID disease, because that can give you prolonged
cardiac problems. We have good systems of monitoring safety, and as time goes on, we've been able to
collect more and more data. And at this point of time, we're very confident that all the vaccines that are
authorized for use for COVID have very good safety profiles.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Soumya. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick
with science.

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