Emerging Vaccine Technologies

A vaccine for cancer. A universal vaccine that protects you from both the flu and the coronavirus at the same time. Using nasal sprays instead of syringes. New mRNA vaccines being developed with a one-month turnaround. These are just some of the advances in vaccine technologies we may see in the near future.

Breakthroughs in vaccine development don’t happen overnight; they take dozens of years and hundreds of clinical trials and millions of dollars. There are funding challenges, government setbacks, logistical issues, and multiple other factors slowing down progress. But even with all these obstacles, incredible medical advancements are happening, and some major ones may be just around the corner, including vaccines for HIV, malaria, shingles, genital herpes, and even, yes, cancer.

Before we look into the future of vaccine technologies, though, let’s take a quick look at the most recent pandemic and what was accomplished. In late December 2019, the first case of the coronavirus COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, essentially shutting down the world. Then, on August 23, 2021, the FDA approved the first COVID-19 vaccine. And now, as of today, over 670 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to people in the United States alone.

When we were in the middle of the pandemic, when we were disinfecting our groceries and standing in the front yard waving to our grandparents through the window, it may have seemed as if science was failing us, that the vaccine was taking way too long, or that it may never come at all. And then… the vaccine arrived. What felt like an eternity at the time was actually just about 20 months, which is an incredible feat for the scientific community.

If we could do that—if we could produce a COVID-19 vaccine in under two years and distribute it to hundreds of millions around the world—then what else can we do? What else is possible?

Here are some exciting developments on the horizon for emerging vaccine technologies:

  • Moderna is working on a universal vaccine that could protect you not only against multiple strains of influenza, but also the coronavirus and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), all at the same time
  • Moderna is also developing mRNA vaccines for HIV, Zika, Epstein-Barr virus, and more
  • mRna vaccine therapeutics may soon be used in cancer treatments tailored to individuals, attacking tumor cells in the body
  • According to Miryam Naddaf at Nature.com, BiotNTech in Mainz, Germany, are starting the first-in-human trials for mRNA vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis, shingles and genital herpes
  • Fast-acting nasal sprays could be delivering vaccines to humans in the future after effectively working in animals, eliciting a stronger and quicker defense against initial infection
  • An updated COVID-19 vaccine is in the works for 2023 variants, including the introduction of potential drugs to treat Long COVID

The science behind emerging vaccines is astonishing. Jessica Hamzelou for Technology Review writes that newer “vaccines don’t rely on injecting a part of the virus into a person, like many other vaccines do. Instead, they deliver genetic code that our bodies can use to make the relevant piece of viral protein ourselves. The entire process is much quicker and simpler and sidesteps the need to grow viruses in a lab and purify the proteins they make.”The next pandemic is somewhere on the horizon—be it a new coronavirus or a new strain of the flu—but know that scientists are developing mRNA vaccines at a rapid pace, and they are now cheaper, quicker, and easier to make. In the meantime, they are overcoming obstacles and making advancements to treat a variety of current viruses and diseases. These vaccines won’t be the solution to everything, of course, but we’re excited to see what they can do.

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