We have all marveled at the speed at which the new Covid vaccines have been produced. A process that normally takes 10 years has been achieved in less than one year. And, the further good news, is that two of the vaccines have used a new, pioneering technology that's likely to be very useful in the future.
The drugs developed by Pfizer and Moderna could herald more breakthroughs and change vaccines forever. Without getting too technical, both use synthetic messenger RNA, or mRNA, a molecule that tells cells how to build proteins.
With it, you can trick cells into producing proteins usually found in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and stimulate the immune system - without making patients sick - to provide protection against infection.
These are the first two vaccines to use this pioneering technology. If they are as effective as early data suggests, they could herald a new era in vaccine and therapeutic design. With significant refinement, mRNA vaccines could treat not just viral diseases like COVID-19, but inherited diseases, allergies or even cancer. "I think we'll see some pretty incredible breakthroughs based on these technologies in the future," says Larisa Labzin, an immunologist at the University of Queensland, Australia.
And if another pandemic catches our immune systems off-guard in the future, mRNA vaccines have the potential to put a stop to things faster than ever before.
Another high-profile vaccine candidate, developed by Oxford University and pharma company AstraZeneca, uses a different method again. They basically get the virus and take out all the dangerous parts of it. Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines are completely different. They deliver synthetic mRNA to cells, and they're the first vaccines ever built to fight infectious disease this way.
It's too early to say if they will end all pandemics, but knowing that mRNA vaccines work in this one might give us a head start on the next.