Skip to main content
Move the World.
coronavirus vaccine

Lead Image © Bloomicon.

As the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV proliferates in China and spreads (to a much lesser extent) abroad — even reaching your correspondent's home base of Chicago; he's feeling fine, don't worry — the race is on for a new vaccine.

But creating a new vaccine is a laborious and expensive process, and when faced with a brand-new virus, the challenges are increased. Scientists must first understand what they are up against, and then they need to produce vast quantities of the ingredients necessary for a vaccine. Finally, even if it all works, the financial benefits can be minimal, leading many companies to shun investing in vaccines for emerging or uncommon diseases.

Vaccines work by priming the immune system to make antibodies for a particular disease. These large, y-shaped proteins then stick into the virus, disabling it or marking it for death by white blood cells. Vaccines use antigens, the protein signature of a virus, to stimulate the body to produce antibodies. Once the immune system has made them, the body will "remember" them and release a flood again as soon as the real virus attacks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), wants vaccines for the Wuhan coronavirus to be ready for trial in three months. This is a monumental ask. But a handful biotech companies — with support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a public-private partnership which looks to accelerate vaccine development — are stepping up.

One of those companies, Cambridge-based Moderna Therapeutics, is harnessing the power of mRNA-based vaccines.

RNA vaccines use mRNA — essentially, cellular instructions translated from DNA — to tell the body's own cells to make antigens. Since RNA vaccines don't use the actual virus (or parts of it) to make the antigens, there is no need to grow and store huge quantities of them — an extremely expensive and time-consuming process that must be done specially for every disease's vaccine.

More importantly, mRNA is written in a simple genetic code. Researchers only need the genetic code of a pathogen to create potential mRNA antigens. It's basically a plug-and-play model, which means RNA vaccines can be created in bulk: cheaper, faster, and with standardized methods. It also means you can rapidly shift production to a new pathogen or new antigen candidate by inserting a new code.

Like, say, a novel coronavirus.

Moderna already has an animal-tested vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is caused by a similar coronavirus. Theoretically, Moderna can substitute the code for their MERS vaccine with one from 2019-nCoV to create the new vaccine. "It was a really, really hard scientific challenge to make the first one, but once you get the first one working, the next one becomes really easy: You get the sequence, and this is just another one," Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, told Science Mag.

If the vaccine works, Moderna could prepare vast amounts of it: up to 100 million doses a year, if it dedicated all its resources to it, according to Bancel. This would be orders of magnitude greater and faster than traditional vaccine development, and such a feat would prove RNA vaccines' ability to be rapidly developed, scaled, and deployed.

If it works. Trials are expected to begin in three months.

Up Next

Outer Space
The Dwarf Planet Ceres May Hide A Subterranean Sea
dwarf planet ceres
Outer Space
The Dwarf Planet Ceres May Hide A Subterranean Sea
The largest body in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres may hide a salty subterranean sea.

The largest body in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres may hide a salty subterranean sea.

Medicine
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
Medicine
Study: Blood Transfusions Can Slow Signs of Aging in Mice
A new study shows that blood from fitter mice can reverse cognitive decline in sedentary mice.

A new study shows that blood from fitter mice can reverse cognitive decline in sedentary mice.

Mental Health
New Algorithm Gives Trauma Survivors a "PTSD Risk Score"
PTSD Risk Score
Mental Health
New Algorithm Gives Trauma Survivors a "PTSD Risk Score"
A newly developed algorithm calculates a "PTSD Risk Score" for people seeking treatment for traumatic injuries.

A newly developed algorithm calculates a "PTSD Risk Score" for people seeking treatment for traumatic injuries.

Future of Medicine
This Ultrasound Connects to an iPhone to Help Catch COVID-19
Portable Ultrasound Machine
Future of Medicine
This Ultrasound Connects to an iPhone to Help Catch COVID-19
Ultrasound can be a useful diagnostic tool for COVID-19. A portable ultrasound machine called the Butterfly iQ may make it safer.

Ultrasound can be a useful diagnostic tool for COVID-19. A portable ultrasound machine called the Butterfly iQ may make it safer.

Pandemic Preparedness
Learning from Disaster: An Interview with Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh Interview
Pandemic Preparedness
Learning from Disaster: An Interview with Bryan Walsh
Human history is dotted with pandemics. We spoke with "End Times" author Bryan Walsh on how we can learn from them for the future.

Human history is dotted with pandemics. We spoke with "End Times" author Bryan Walsh on how we can learn from them for the future.

Dope Science
Marijuana and Autism: Removing the Stigma
Removing the stigma of marijuana and autism
Dope Science
Marijuana and Autism: Removing the Stigma
Research is beginning to prove the hopeful connection between marijuana and autism treatment for symptom relief. Here is one man’s inspiring story.
By Kurt Hackbarth

Research is beginning to prove the hopeful connection between marijuana and autism treatment for symptom relief. Here is one man’s inspiring story.

Medicine
RNA Vaccines Could Change Everything in the Fight Against Disease
RNA Vaccines Could Change Everything in the Fight Against Disease
Medicine
RNA Vaccines Could Change Everything in the Fight Against Disease
Traditional methods of vaccination have come up against difficult challenges. They can also be expensive and time-consuming to produce. New RNA vaccines are faster, cheaper, and safer, and show great potential to meet evolving threats.

Traditional methods of vaccination have come up against difficult challenges. They can also be expensive and time-consuming to produce, curtailing efforts to control outbreaks or head off a flu season caused by an unexpected strain. A newer type of vaccines, using RNA, could alleviate these issues. Faster, cheaper, and safer, RNA vaccines show great potential to meet evolving threats.

Dispatches
We Found the Oldest Human Virus: It's Familiar (but Weird)
Ancient Human Viruses Weird and Familiar
Dispatches
We Found the Oldest Human Virus: It's Familiar (but Weird)
The discovery cracks open a 7,000-year history of human-virus warfare. And it's raising weird questions.

The discovery cracks open a 7,000-year history of human-virus warfare. And it's raising weird questions.