Moderna, the biotech company behind one of the two mRNA-based vaccines currently being rolled out globally to stem the tide of COVID-19, has announced that it will purse development programs around three new vaccine candidates in 2021. These include potential vaccines for HIV, seasonal flu and the Nipah virus. Moderna’s development and clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine is among the fastest in history, and thus far its results have been very promising, buoying hopes for the efficacy of other preventative treatments being generated using this technology which is new to human clinical use.
An mRNA vaccine differs from typical, historical vaccines because it involves providing a person with just a set of instructions on how to build specific proteins that will trigger a body’s natural defenses. The mRNA instructions, which are temporary and do not affect a person’s actual DNA, simply prompt the body’s cells to produce proteins that mirror those used by a virus to attach to and infect cells. The independent proteins are then fought off by a person’s natural immune response, which provides a lasting lesson in how to fight off any future proteins that match that profile, including those which help viruses attach to and infect people.
Moderna’s new programs will target not only seasonal flu, but also a combinatory vaccine that could target both the regular flu and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to COVID-19. The HIV candidate, which is developed in collaboration with both the AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is expected to enter into Phase 1 trials this year, as will the flue face. Nipah virus is a highly lethal illness that can cause respiratory and neurological symptoms, and which is particularly a threat in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore.
mRNA-based vaccines have long held potential for future vaccine development, in part because of their flexibility and programmability, and in part because they don’t use any active or dormant virus, which reduces their risks in terms of causing any direct infections up front. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred significant investment and regulatory/health and safety investment into the technology, paving the way for its use in other areas, including these new vaccine candidate trials by Moderna.