Before we get too carried away, however, questions remain around mRNA vaccines. Currently we need regular booster shots – and these shots tend to hurt your arm, sometimes with fatiguing side effects. At the time of writing, we are less than a year into real-world use. Anaphylactic reactions (albeit with no deaths) have been observed in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the United States: slightly higher, 4.7 per million, with the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine compared to 2.5 per million vaccinations from the Moderna vaccine. According to one analysis, while still low, this is 11 times higher than with the flu vaccine.
“We’re still working to understand how long the antibody response lasts for as well as the cellular response,” says Blakney. “There’s good indication now that you do get a really good memory T cell response from the mRNA vaccines, but since these trials are a year and a half old in most cases, we’re still understanding how long that immunity lasts for.” She adds that most people, “don’t really want to get multiple vaccines every year that knock you out for three days afterwards”.
Blakney’s lab at UBC is, however, working on an answer: saRNA, or self-amplifying mRNA. It has the same structural components as normal mRNA, except once inside a cell it can make copies of itself. “This is really advantageous because it allows you to use a much lower dose, usually about 100 times less saRNA compared to mRNA,” says Blakney. This means more bang for your buck, and less pain in your arm. In a tortoise versus hare race, mRNA vaccines may have run ahead to combat Covid-19, but saRNA may win out in the end – and indeed has just received $195m (£145m) backing from AstraZeneca (which compares favourably to the $29.5m (£22m) Ethris received for its pulmonary diseases vaccine development, mentioned earlier in this article).
Meanwhile, Fu, Dong, Whitehead and Blakney continue to ride – and drive – the wave of the RNAissance. Wherever it carries them, one thing is for sure: it will never again be the same niche, anonymous field of research they once knew. Especially if you put your explainer videos out on TikTok like Blakney. “My whole mission on there is to educate people about vaccines,” she laughs. “I get tonnes of random questions. But I’ve also had loads of people say things like, you are the reason why me and my partner got the vaccine. And that’s really impactful.”
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