Pfizer and Moderna are the first out the door with their new mRNA vaccines, but that’s really their chief advantage.
Find out why they are, at best, expensive stop-gap measures until the real silver bullets arrive…
Pfizer + Moderna mRNA Vaccines : How Do They Work Against COVID-19?
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 contain mRNA strands that code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
The mRNA instructions are used by ribosomes in our cells to create the spike proteins, that serve as antigens – flags that let our body identify the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus.
These antigens trigger the body’s immune system, training it to create antibodies that target the spike protein. If we actually get infected by SARS-CoV-2, those antibodies will immediately attach to the virus particles :
- preventing them from infecting our cells
- cause the virus particles to stick together (agglutinate), making them easier targets
- identifying the virus particles as targets for phagocytic cells to destroy
The immune response to the spike proteins will also train memory cells, so that they can respond to a future COVID-19 infection weeks or months after vaccination.
Pfizer + Moderna mRNA Vaccines Chief Advantage : Speed To Market
The chief advantage of the new mRNA technology is that it allows for very rapid creation of the vaccine candidate.
Moderna, for example, took only two days to create mRNA-1273 – their COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
This ability to create custom mRNA sequences based on an identifying feature – like the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein – is revolutionary indeed.
It is what allows both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to go from concept to approval in just 10 months, instead of the usual 5-10 years.
Why Pfizer + Moderna mRNA Vaccines Are Not Good Enough
As revolutionary as mRNA technology is in creating the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, they are really not good enough to take on the COVID-19 pandemic by themselves.
They will both be limited to major metropolitan centres of richer countries that can afford their high price tags, and more complicated logistics.
They are both important weapons against COVID-19, but here are the reasons why they are simply not good enough.
Problem #1 : Poor Stability
The problem with using mRNA is that it is very delicate, and easily degrade. That’s why mRNA vaccines must be stored at very low temperatures.
Pfizer-BioNTech require their vaccines to be kept at -70°C in special ultra-low temperature freezers to last for 6 months.
Even then, the trays they come in must not be opened more than twice a day, and must be closed within one minute of opening. Once the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is thawed, it can be kept in a standard freezer for up to five days.
Moderna’s vaccine is more stable, and can be kept for up to 6 months at just -20°C. After thawing, it will last for up to 30 days in a refrigerator, and can be kept at room temperature for up to 12 hours.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, on the other hand, only require storage at 2~8°C, which any refrigerator is capable of.
Such adenovirus-based vaccines are more stable, and therefore much easier (and cheaper!) to transport, store and administer in rural areas.
Problem #2 : High Prices
Both mRNA vaccines come with very hefty price tags – $19.50 per dose for Pfizer-BioNTech, and $25 per dose average ($10~$50) for Moderna. That’s $39 and $50 per person respectively.
Vaccinating just 70% of the 7.5 billion world population with mRNA vaccines will cost $204 TRILLION (Pfizer-BioNTech) or $262.5 TRILLION (Moderna).
Compare that to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which will cost just $3-$4 per dose; and Sputnik V which will cost less than $10.
They would bring down the cost of vaccinating 70% of the world population to just $36.8 TRILLION (AstraZeneca) or $105 TRILLION (Sputnik V).
Problem #3 : Production Limitation
mRNA technology is new, and therefore Pfizer and Moderna cannot mass-license it to other companies to manufacture.
Pfizer can only manufacture up to 1.35 billion doses by end of 2021 – only enough to vaccinate 675 million people.
Moderna can manufacture between 500 million to 1 billion doses by end of 2021. Say they hit 750 million doses, that’s just enough to vaccinate 375 million people.
Together, both mRNA vaccines can only hope to vaccinate about a billion people – just 14% of the world’s population… by the end of 2021!
AstraZeneca, on the other hand, can manufacture 3 billion doses in 2021 – vaccinating 1.5 billion people (20% of world population).
Gamaleya and their partners can manufacture up to 1 billion doses of Sputnik V in 2021 – vaccinating 500 million people (6.7% of world population).
Adenovirus-based vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Gamaleya, Johnson & Johnson, are easier to manufacture, and will likely be the vaccines that will ultimately stop the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Dr. Adrian Wong has been writing about tech and science since 1997, even publishing a book with Prentice Hall called Breaking Through The BIOS Barrier (ISBN 978-0131455368) while in medical school.
He continues to devote countless hours every day writing about tech, medicine and science, in his pursuit of facts in a post-truth world.
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