In January 2020, the world was confronted with a health crisis like never seen before – the onset of COVID-19 and the global pandemic it has caused. 

The rush to find an effective vaccine to combat the virus has been spearheaded mainly by corporations, and the leading companies testing mRNA vaccines are at the core of this research and development.

What is mRNA?

Messenger RNA, better known as mRNA, is a type of molecule that carries instructions from DNA to make proteins in living cells. It gives these instructions to the cell machinery that creates proteins, as well as other molecules, ultimately defining a cell’s structure and function.

In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines are developed to stimulate the body’s immune system by having the cells create proteins, which are the same kind of proteins found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This mimics infection and stimulates the body to learn, become familiar and start creating antibodies.

The Leading mRNA Vaccine Companies

As the research and development dedicated to finding a vaccine for COVID-19 advances, many mRNA vaccine companies have emerged as the top contenders for creating one:

• Moderna: Moderna is an American biotechnology company, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that helped pioneer the field of messenger RNA therapeutics and sis considered to be the frontrunner in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine.

• BioNTech: This German biotech company is headquartered in Mainz and develops mRNA-based medicines, including those intended to prevent and treat diseases related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

• CureVac: This German biopharmaceutical company develops therapeutic agents and vaccines against cancer and other diseases. Alongside BioNTech and Moderna, CureVac is one of the leading companies focused on developing a proven and usable mRNA-based vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.

• Pfizer and BioNTech: This partnership, announced in the spring of 2020, develops and manufactures a messenger RNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in record speed. Working together, the two companies contributed to the remarkable progress of mRNA vaccine research and development for COVID-19.

Other companies worth mentioning are Inovio Pharmaceuticals and AstraZeneca.

Overview of the Developmental Process Used by mRNA Companies

The challenge of creating an effective and safe vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 has inspired a lot of innovation. Several different messenger RNA sequences were developed since the beginning of the pandemic.

After the genetic information of the virus is identified, the vaccine is developed by scientists in the labs. Throughout this process, their research is regularly tested in vitro, meaning outside of a living organism.

The mRNA molecules that the researchers create, in response to the virus, are then inserted back into the cells of the virus they are trying to combat. The mRNA strand is then cut and the cells will start producing the protein of the virus.

The body’s immune system is then activated and starts producing an immunity response to prevent a future or future exposure to the virus in question.

When the vaccine has gone through these stages, the vaccine undergo a series of clinical trials. This is where the vaccine is tested on humans in order to assess safety and efficacy.

The Three Steps of mRNA Vaccine Clinical trials

Before any pharmaceutical company can release a vaccine, it needs to pass through three clinical trials phases. During each trial, a different number of participants are enrolled — and the doses of the vaccine increase.

Phase I
The first phase of clinical trial studies the safety of the vaccine; safety meaning the related risks, side effects, and dosage forms of the drug. During this trial, the vaccine is given to very small groups of people — usually between 20 and 100 — in order to evaluate the efficacy, safety and immunogenicity.

Phase II
During the second phase, scientists will increase the number of participants and doses to several hundred people in order to further assess the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. In this step of the trial, scientists will also be able to identify specific populations in which the vaccine can be effective.

Phase III
This stage is the most important. Due to the large number of participants — usually tens of thousands — this phase is the most difficult to carry out and usually takes the longest. During the third phase, scientists are looking to make sure it works on a large scale and provides a long-term boost of immunity.

The development of an effective vaccine to battle SARS-CoV-2 is of utmost importance. Nine months into the pandemic, scientists and innovators are working at an ever-increasing pace to create a vaccine that is safe and will provide immunity with a single shot.

At the core of this race to find the right solution to battle the virus is the effort put in by several messenger RNA vaccine companies. Moderna, BioNTech, CureVac, Inovio, Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca are all racing to produce a viable vaccine that we hope will provide us with a safe and successful pandemic exit.