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Science

The Commission’s great U-Turn on mRNA vaccines

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by Joshua Hoehne

Here's a change of heart we can support...

Back in January I published a blog post on this site asking the question of whether the new generation of COVID-19 vaccines will change our view on genetic engineering. In a statement back in July last year, the European Parliament said that "The derogation will facilitate the development, authorisation and consequently availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments". According to EU legislation dating back to the early 2000s, genetic engineering is generally forbidden, with only a few exceptions. This was particularly driven by the scepticism of genetic engineering in agriculture. The Pfizer/Biontech, which to date remains the most prominent and incidentally most trusted COVID-19, something that surveys have also shown with our friends in the United States.

Now, the Commission is surfing the wave of the popularity of this vaccine in order to bank on mRNA shots for fighting COVID-19. And, as Euractiv reports, more voices are supportive of these vaccines in the fight against future pandemics: "Commenting on the news, centre-right MEP Peter Liese said he supported the decision to move towards mRNA vaccines, pointing out that they can be better adapted to mutations."

Peter Liese is to be commended for his statement on this matter. Indeed, this new technology which relies on genetic engineering is very promising. For some experts, mRNA vaccines hold the key to faster and more effective vaccine programmes, capable of fighting multiple viruses in a single injection or providing protection against recalcitrant diseases (diseases characterised by poor survival and with little progress made in developing novel treatments).

In January, Moderna launched new programmes to develop mRNA vaccines for Nipah virus, HIV and influenza, adding to its portfolio of 20 mRNA candidates. Pfizer is also developing new mRNA vaccines, including one for seasonal flu. Several dozen other manufacturers and laboratories around the world are currently involved in similar initiatives.

The use of mRNA as a therapeutic or vaccine technique has been studied and developed for over a decade. Its interest seems to go beyond the field of vaccines against infectious diseases and also concerns cancers (see, for example, the immunotherapy products under development at BioNTech, or diseases with an autoimmune component (a treatment against multiple sclerosis is under development at BioNTech).

COVID-19 will have accelerated the large-scale evaluation of mRNA technologies. It is likely that this approach will expand massively in the coming years, also benefiting from advances in microencapsulation (nanoparticle) technologies. This technology could be refined by allowing nanoparticles to target specific cells by adding specific recognition molecules (e.g. ligands, receptors, antibodies) to the particle membrane. It will then be possible to deliver mRNA only to cells that need it (e.g. to compensate for the absence of a protein in genetic diseases, as with gene therapy, or to eliminate infected or tumour cells).

However, for this to happen the European Union ought to change its general approach to genetic engineering. While the support for the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine is commendable, more needs to be done from the point of view of legislation. There is a significant logical discrepancy when we are ready to use genetic engineering for medical purposes, but we somehow reject it in the field of agriculture. There are comparable health benefits to using similar technologies in our food; not least since the invention of vitamin B-heavy Golden Rice for the Asian market have genetically modified foods shown to be inherently linked to healthier food. On top of that, we can achieve our climate ambitions through new technologies that consume less resources at higher yields.

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