Vaccine experts are excited about mRNA's success in COVID, but it's not time to 'walk away' from traditional shots: panel

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Vaccine researchers see the promise in mRNA, but aren't ready to give up on older platforms. (Pixabay)

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the profile of mRNA vaccines in a dramatic way in about a year. Looking forward, the technology holds more promise and could displace traditional shots in some diseases, experts said, but it's not time to give up on well-known vaccine platforms, either.

Last spring, amid deadly coronavirus outbreaks in China and Europe, researchers at Moderna—in partnership with the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases—reached human testing for their mRNA vaccine in record time. And separately, in under a year of development, testing and manufacturing, Pfizer and its mRNA partner BioNTech were able to score an FDA emergency use authorization last December.  

Now, both vaccines are being distributed in the U.S. and elsewhere. About 17.5 million doses have been administered in America, the CDC reports.  

Looking forward, experts involved in mRNA vaccine research and those working on other platforms are enthusiastic about the technology, they said on a recent Fierce Pharma virtual panel.  

In addition to being able to rapidly advance new vaccines in response to emerging threats, the “beauty” of the platform is that the production process is “universal," CureVac’s chief technology officer Mariola Fotin-Mleczek said. CureVac is advancing a late-stage COVID-19 vaccine candidate partnered with German pharma Bayer. 

“If you invest in huge production capacity, you can produce different vaccines in the same plant,” Fotin-Mleczek said, without needing to “start from scratch” or switch production processes. 

Aside from CureVac’s COVID-19 vaccine, the company is advancing programs against rabies, RSV and other diseases. During a more normal period without the pandemic, mRNA vaccine factories can “switch” to produce vaccines that are in regular need, Fotin-Mleczek said. 

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Still, it’s not time to go all-in on mRNA, said Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda’s global vaccines business unit. While experts are clearly enthusiastic about the platform, that “doesn’t guarantee that mRNA will immediately work against all pathogens," he said.

Scientists have been working for decades on vaccines against “very, very hard targets” such as HIV, Venkayya said. While researchers will try mRNA against those tough targets in the coming years, the vaccine field can’t “walk away” entirely from its other platforms, some of which have decades-long track records. Takeda has vaccine candidates targeting dengue, Zika, norovirus and Chikungunya.

“We will need to continue investing in the other proven platforms,” he said. 

Swati Gupta, vice president and head of emerging infectious diseases and scientific strategy at IAVI, only sees interest in genetic vaccines accelerating after the pandemic. Scientists “are going to be looking at ways” to further apply the technology, she said, including combining multiple antigens in one vaccine and exploring the platform beyond infectious diseases. 

Gupta's team at IAVI is working with Merck on a preclinical COVID-19 candidate that uses the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus technology used in Merck's authorized Ebola vaccine.

The expert comments echo recent remarks from Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, who told an audience at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that his company believes mRNA is the "best platform to make vaccines," and voiced enthusiasm about the company's programs in cytomegalovirus, flu, RSV and other diseases. Bancel believes Moderna's flu vaccine could be "best-in-class."

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