Much of the optimism going forward this year is due to one innovation and the vaccines it has supplied: Messenger RNA (mRNA). Messenger RNA is responsible for the rapid vaccine development around the world and without it we would not be near an imminent end of the pandemic. The technology, only a decade old, has several advantages on traditional vaccine development. The core concept of mRNA is to synthetically develop RNA strands that can directly program a cell, changing its processes and manufacturing to purpose. In this case it creates an immune response to COVID-19. Traditional vaccines use indirect methods of cell programming by introducing samples of a particular virus to induce a potential immune response. By using the direct method as opposed to the indirect, mRNA vaccines have two major advantages. First, in production there is no need to transport live viral samples. Without the danger or the cost of keeping a live virus, time and money are saved. Second, with direct interaction desired cell function can be more directly targeted. This means that the vaccines can be modified more rapidly to deal with mutations and new strains of virus. This adaptability of mRNA has wider implications for the technology beyond Covid-19.
The rapid developmental potential and high specificity of mRNA allows for some awe-inspiring potential. In the near term this is likely to allow for the mRNA vaccines to be adapted to any mutation or variation of the COVID-19 virus. It is also likely to speed up vaccine development in the first world countries that have a network of refrigeration needed to keep stock of mRNA vaccines. The most momentous potential application of this type of precision medicine is for the development of personally individualized vaccines that could allow one to treat a particular person or a particular disease DNA. It could allow previously near untreatable illnesses like a variety of cancers to have customized treatments. This would be a development that if proven, would be as impressive as the original discovery of vaccines and consequently will likely be widely adapted as a core of medicine moving forward. The only limiting factor comes not through mRNA development, which has proven quite rapid (with the Moderna trial vaccine created just 25 days after the Chinese published the genome for the disease), but from the availability of rapid gene sequencing. The COVID-19 virus sequencing was fast tracked because of its global importance. Individual sequencing remains laborious and expensive with a turnaround time that is too slow for many patients suffering cancer or other diseases. However, with sequencing moving towards a cheaper and quicker model, mRNA will only prove to be another catalyst to move forward this technology.