WHO Scientific Council issues report on mRNA vaccine technology

Prompted by the life-saving impact of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scientific Council of the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a report reviewing the potential benefits and limitations of mRNA vaccine technology. The report expresses the importance of research and development (R&D) efforts for mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 and outlines the challenges of inequitable access.

The success of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 is the result of decades of investment in basic science investigating chemical modifications of – and immune responses to – RNA, with their potential applications for HIV, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) , and anticancer therapies and vaccines. Other key factors include thousands of people enthusiastically volunteering to participate in clinical trials, collaboration between researchers and unprecedented levels of funding.

However, the benefits of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 are not equally distributed globally, with insufficient R&D capacity, intellectual property barriers and ultra-cold chain requirements, and high costs for low- and middle-income countries.

“Unlocking the potential of mRNA technology beyond vaccines against COVID-19 will require robust research to directly address the limitations,” said Professor Harold Varmus, Chair of the WHO Scientific Council, Nobel Laureate and former Director of the US National Institutes of Health. “To improve mRNA vaccine technology, future research should aim to develop more temperature-stable vaccines, increase the duration of protection, and ensure efficacy against a diverse range of strains and variants.”

The report recommends a framework for assessing the value of mRNA technology in the development of vaccines and therapeutics against other infectious diseases. A framework could also help establish the technology’s potential role in addressing cancer and autoimmune diseases.

To inform such a framework, the report outlines the state of clinical trials of mRNA vaccines at the most advanced stages of development. Although vaccines against COVID-19 are the only safe and effective preventive mRNA vaccines developed and approved for human use to date, mRNA vaccines against cytomegalovirus (a common virus that can endanger infants and those with weakened immune systems), influenza A both B and RSV are in phase 3 trials. In addition, work is underway to detect tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, as well as non-communicable diseases.

The report also calls for further research to examine the potential of this technology as well as its limitations. Improving the stability of mRNA vaccines at higher temperatures should be a key focus of investment and research efforts. Another key recommendation is to ensure comprehensive development and access through investment and application of lessons from COVID-19 initiatives, such as ACT-Accelerator, which works to ensure access to tests, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

“To maximize the impact of mRNA technologies, it is vital to promote and strengthen research on a country-by-country basis so that each region has a dynamic and sustainable science, research and development ecosystem,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, WHO Chief Scientist. “Combined with investment and a commitment to equitable access, a more diverse global research ecosystem will better address communicable and non-communicable diseases and improve health outcomes with new safe and effective mRNA vaccines and potentially therapeutics for all.”

The report also highlights the importance of building trust and improved communication around mRNA technologies to limit vaccine hesitancy and misinformation and to improve current and future vaccine uptake.

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