The mRNA vaccines are defeating COVID. Let's use them for the flu.


The last year has been a story of triumph in the vaccine world, with the rapid development of two highly successful vaccines for Covid-19, one developed by Moderna and the other by Pfizer and BioNTech. Now that flu season is approaching, why are we still using 50-year-old technology for the flu vaccine?

The reason the Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly is that they used a new, much faster and easier-to-create type of vaccine technology, based on messenger RNA, or mRNA. What’s even more exciting is that we now have an overwhelming amount of evidence, from real-world experience, that these vaccines are remarkably safe and effective.

Now, anti-vaxxers and the “vaccine hesitant” are claiming they don’t trust the vaccine because it was developed too fast. That’s ridiculous: the real reason they don’t trust the vaccine is because they’re consuming a steady diet of anti-vaccine nonsense, promoted by a combination of right-wing media and the Disinformation Dozen (who include left-wing as well as right-wing zealots). But let’s not go down that rabbit hole today.

So what is an mRNA vaccine? Here’s a brief explainer, and then we’ll look at the flu vaccine. (Note: feel free to skip ahead if you already understand the technology.)

Messenger RNA vaccines have been under development for decades, since long before Covid-19 appeared. The technology required a series of breakthroughs over the years, as described in a recent Nature news story, and many scientists contributed. It wasn’t used in vaccines in part because it wasn’t ready, but also because we rely on private companies to develop vaccines, and few of them were interested in investing in a new, not-yet-approved technology. But I digress.

Messenger RNA is the stuff that all of your cells use to translate your genes, which are encoded in DNA, into proteins. The basic process is that the DNA for a gene is copied into pieces of mRNA, where the DNA letters, ACGT, are replaced by slightly different (chemically) RNA letters, ACGU.

Every cell in your body is filled with mRNA, all the time. It’s the stuff of life, so of course it is totally safe. Each cell uses mRNA to make proteins, which do most of the actual work that keeps you alive.

Here’s the brilliant thing about mRNA vaccines: all they do is introduce some mRNA into your cells that encodes a single protein from the virus, which is called “Spike” in the case of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Your own cells then make the Spike protein, but they don’t make very much! They just make a few copies, because mRNA doesn’t last very long. And because there is no DNA copy of the Spike protein in your genome, once the mRNA in the vaccine breaks down, it’s gone forever.

The other brilliant thing is that your own immune system recognizes Spike as a foreign protein, and it generates cells that will recognize any future infections where the Spike protein is present. If you’re later infected by SARS-CoV-2 (the Covid-19 virus), your immune system is primed and ready, and in a large majority of cases it attacks and destroys the virus before you get sick.

So that’s it: an mRNA vaccine is simply a little package made of fat molecules (called liposomes) that contains a few copies of mRNA encoding a viral protein. There’s nothing to prevent us now from creating similar vaccines for the flu, or for other viruses where we need new vaccines. (In the case of flu, we can use mRNA for a gene called hemagglutinin, but again I digress.)

We make new flu vaccines every year, because the flu is constantly mutating. Most years, the flu vaccine isn’t a great match for the circulating strains of the virus, and therefore the vaccine isn’t very effective. In a good year it might be 60-70% effective, but in bad years it might be much worse. A big part of the problem comes from how we create the vaccine.

In the U.S., we make most of our flu vaccines by growing influenza viruses in chicken eggs. No, I’m not making this up. Around February of each year, a panel of experts selects 4 strains of the virus that they think will most likely match the viruses for the following flu season, which usually ramps up in November or December. (Here are this year’s choices.)

Once the experts have selected the vaccine strains, the manufacturing process begins, first by checking to see if all 4 strains will grow robustly in chicken eggs. If they don’t, the panel may have to switch to different strains that are less likely to work. No, I’m not kidding: the success of the flu vaccine depends on how well it grows in eggs. That’s one reason why, in some years, the flu vaccine is a flop. This would simply never happen if we used mRNA technology.

With mRNA vaccines, we don’t have to grow any viruses at all. The mRNA from a single gene–hemagglutinin for influenza–can simply be synthesized in large quantities, just as we’re now doing for the Spike protein in SARS-CoV-2. Or for an even more effective vaccine, we might add the gene for neuraminidase, the other protein in influenza that our immune system can “see.”

An mRNA vaccine for flu would be far cheaper to manufacture, not requiring huge chicken farms. (This year, 82% of flu doses in the U.S. were made this way.) Even more important, though, is that an mRNA vaccine for flu would likely be far more effective at controlling the severity of the infection itself.

Why aren’t we doing this already? Simply put, it’s because we rely on private companies to take the initiative, and it’s not worth it to them to test and validate an entirely new vaccine, which requires a substantial investment. There’s also a simple solution, the same one we used for Covid-19: the government should take the lead.

We’re now at the beginning of flu season, which almost disappeared last year thanks to our social distancing and masking behavior. I’ve had my flu shot, and millions more are being administered around the world. Just last week, an early report out of Europe indicated that the flu season this year might be “severe,” which is the last thing we need with Covid-19 still raging.

We don’t yet know if this year’s flu shot will be effective or not, but odds are, based on past performance, that it won’t be great. (It’s still much better than nothing, I should add.) If we want a better flu vaccine, now is the time to start developing a new one using mRNA. If private industry doesn’t step up, any one of dozens of countries have the expertise to do so instead.

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