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EDITORIAL ANALYSIS : The trouble with a Nobel for mRNA COVID vaccines

 

Source: The Hindu

  • Prelims: Current events of national importance, Government policies, Covid-19 vaccination, Covid-19, mRNA etc
  • Mains GS Paper II: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementations,

 

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS

  • The 2023 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for developing the mRNA vaccine technology for history’s fastest vaccine development programme during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

INSIGHTS ON THE ISSUE

Context

mRNA Vaccine:

 

  • mRNA stands for messenger RNA, a molecule that carries genetic information from DNA to the protein-making machinery of the cell.
  • mRNA vaccines use synthetic mRNA that encodes a specific protein from a pathogen, such as the spike protein of the coronavirus.
  • When the mRNA vaccine is injected into the body, some of the cells take up the mRNA and use it to produce the protein.
  • The protein then triggers an immune response that produces antibodies and memory cells that can recognize and fight the pathogen in the future.
  • mRNA vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce, as they do not require cell culture or complex purification processes.
  • mRNA vaccines are also more flexible and adaptable, as they can be easily modified to target new variants or strains of pathogens.

 

What Did Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman Discover?

 

  • Cells possess an inherent capability to detect foreign materials.
  • Dendritic cells, which play a crucial role in our immune system, had the ability to recognize in vitro transcribed mRNA as foreign, setting off an inflammatory response.
  • This reaction could potentially lead to harmful side effects and undermine the vaccine’s efficacy.
  • Furthermore, another challenge stemmed from the fact that in vitro transcribed mRNA was highly unstable and susceptible to degradation by enzymes within the body.
  • Karikó and Weissman observed that dendritic cells identify in vitro transcribed mRNA as foreign, activating them and causing the release of inflammatory signals.
  • They questioned why this mRNA was considered foreign, unlike mRNA from mammalian cells, which didn’t trigger the same response.
  • Mammalian cells are eukaryotic cells that belong to the animal kingdom and have a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles.
  • This led them to realize that there must be distinct properties separating the two mRNA types.
  • Karikó:The path followed is Corbevax for Vaccine Development developed this protein sub-unit vaccine and licensed it to India’s Biological E for manufacturing.

 

Challenges in development of mRNA Vaccine:

  • The part of drug development is more risky and protracted, when scientists identify potential biomolecular targets within the body on which a drug could act in order to manage a particular disease
    • Followed by identifying suitable chemical candidates.
  • The cost and time estimates of this phase are $1billion-$2.5 billion and several decades, respectively.
  • Companies commoditise and commercialize these entities, raking in millions in profits, at the expense of the same people whose taxes funded the fundamental research.
  • The ‘double-spend’ it imposes on consumers — including governments
    • The profit-seeking attitude it engenders among the companies developing and manufacturing the product.

 

The discriminatory practice:

  • India, Russia, and China exported billions of doses of their vaccines
    • Their efforts were beset by concerns that manufacturing capacity had been overestimated — in India’s case — and over quality in Russia’s and China’s.
  • There were reports of several countries in Africa having to throw away lakhs of vaccine doses because they had been exported too close to their expiry dates.

 

 

Way Forward

  • mRNA vaccine story during the COVID-19 pandemic simply placed an extraordinary premium on altruism on their part — a result of administrators’ botched decisions.
    • The technology could have benefited everyone during the pandemic, but it did not.
  • Addressing the issues associated with the development and distribution of vaccines will augment the effort to efficiently get vaccines to hundreds of millions in the shortest period of time.

 

QUESTION FOR PRACTICE

What is the basic principle behind vaccine development? How do vaccines work? What approaches were adopted by the Indian vaccine manufacturers to produce COVID-19 vaccines?(UPSC 2022) (200 WORDS, 10 MARKS)