The breakthrough of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may be the best news to come out of this pandemic, but with many questions still unanswered, there is still a long way to go until we’re out of the woods.
The need for new medicines and vaccines to defeat a virus that has already claimed more than 66,000 lives in the UK, obliterated the economy and is significantly impacting the services the NHS is able to offer non-Covid-19 patients, is clear. Having been approved by UK Regulators, the Pfizer vaccine is now being distributed across the UK, with the first doses being administered in Scotland this week.
Like the Moderna vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine has been developed using pioneering messenger RNA technology. But amid the sparkle and fanfare of these promising advances, some scientists believe a lot of questions must be answered before the celebrations can truly begin.
“I think there are an awful lot of hurdles to be overcome and a lot of questions still to be answered before we can categorically say the new vaccines will be a game-changer,” said Crawford Reid, a retired anaesthetist who re-joined the workforce to help the NHS provide operations for breast cancer patients during the pandemic.
“It’s important we don’t cut any corners when assessing these vaccines and that the statutory regulatory bodies are convinced they are dealing with not only an effective vaccine, but a safe one,” he said.
The mRNA vaccines, which work by telling cells which proteins they need to build in order to protect the body against the virus, are much easier to manufacture than conventional vaccines containing inactivated or attenuated versions of viruses. The mRNA production process can also be standardised and more easily scaled up, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to respond much more quickly to future outbreaks.
“The messenger RNA technology is very exciting and holds a huge amount of promise. For decades scientists have been trying to work out how we could harness mRNA to fight diseases. The efficacy and safety results of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines we have seen so far look fantastic, but it’s worth remembering that no mRNA vaccine or drug has ever secured regulatory approval so we need to move forward with caution,” said Daniel Dion, a Forensic Biologist and DNA expert.
The long-term implications of this vaccine technology for the body’s immune system remain unknown. Some virologists have warned that mRNA vaccines could trigger severe auto-immune diseases, such as Lupus. Norbert Pardi, an mRNA vaccine specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Scientist that “if you just inject foreign RNA into people or animals, you can induce a very serious inflammatory response”.
The fear of inadvertently prompting the immune system to go into overdrive hampered efforts to move forward with the mRNA technology in the past. Many researchers opted instead to focus on using more stable DNA to develop vaccines, but some scientists, including Katalin Kariko, now a senior vice president at BioNTech, persevered.
Kate Dion, Daniel’s wife, is a healthcare communications expert. She believes a transparent discussion around the data will be crucial, especially as mRNA vaccines have never made it as far as the Covid-19 vaccines have, despite efforts to use this technology to vaccinate people against a range of diseases, including cancer.
“I would like to see a frank, evidence-based discussion about what the long-term implications of these new vaccines could be for our health so that we don’t stumble into another public health crisis. We need people to ask the right questions and experts to provide clear, honest answers,” Mrs Dion said.
Still, frontline healthcare workers, such as Tayside General Practitioner Suzie Reid, are optimistic that the vaccine will be a valuable weapon in the fight against Covid-19.
“It’s very exciting news. We’re still waiting to hear from the Health Board about the Pfizer vaccine and how we’re going to roll it out, but this could really help us fight Covid-19,” she said.
Featured image credit: BBC News