• Samantha Marmet

History of mRNA Vaccines

The first COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, a new technology that has been studied for over a decade and tested vigorously for safety in clinical trials. According to a December 2020 survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about a quarter (27%) of Americans don’t want a COVID-19 vaccine. The survey cites several reasons, including worries about side effects and concern that the vaccine is too new. Although the mRNA vaccine is the first of its kind for public distribution, the history of mRNA vaccines is extensive.

Messenger RNA vaccines are a new approach to traditional vaccinations, which use a dead or weakened pathogen (disease-causing organism) to generate an immune response in the body. This means that, unlike traditional vaccinations, the dead or weakened COVID-19 virus will not enter the body. Instead, mRNA vaccines provide instructions to the body’s immune system to create a COVID-19 specific “spike protein,” which works as an antigen to generate an immune response against the COVID-19 virus. Though the vaccine uses genetic material to elicit an immune response, it does not interfere with our DNA because it never enters a cell’s nucleus. This non-infectious method means the vaccination itself will not cause a COVID-19 infection after injection.

Although the COVID-19 vaccine is the first mRNA vaccination authorized for use in the United States, this does not mean that the technology is new. mRNA vaccinations were first pioneered by Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó, who worked to obtain funding for her efforts throughout the 1990s, but was constantly rejected. Karikó continued to research and make modifications to her mRNA experiment, catching the attention of two key scientists who would later establish BioNTech, a partner of Moderna and Pfizer.

It has taken 30 years of research and cooperation among different groups of scientists to create a safe and effective mRNA vaccination. Scientists learned how to modify mRNA to produce a safe immune system reaction and teach immune system cells to accept mRNA as it passes through the bloodstream. Biotech companies invested in mRNA vaccine technology already had the foundation to create the COVID-19 vaccination, which was an immediate work in progress right after COVID-19 was identified in China. The narrative that the COVID-19 vaccine has not been properly assessed by the Food and Drug Administration is not only false but dangerous. While it was approved for distribution in less than a year, the mRNA vaccine was held to the same safety and effectiveness standards as all vaccines in the United States. The COVID-19 vaccination was completed quickly, but it was not an immediate breakthrough — it was built on decades of research, information, and clinical trials.


Speaking Plainly

  • The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines use a non-infectious method to train the body to produce an immune response to fight infection.

  • Although the COVID-19 vaccination appears to have been created and approved very quickly, the technology has been around for several decades.

  • mRNA vaccinations have been rigorously studied and tested since the 1990s.