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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Brings DNA Vaccines To The Forefront

Covid-19 Vaccine
Ted S. Warren
A pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller the first shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday in Seattle.

The Trump administration announced on Monday that a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company has a coronavirus vaccine in the human trial phase. Researchers will observe nearly 50 participants for one year to see how well the vaccine works. 

The trial could open the door to more novel approaches to vaccines. This one harnesses the virus’s genetic makeup and uses it against itself. 

The biotech company, Moderna, created a vaccine that targets the virus’s messenger RNA.

The mRNA is like a piece of mail that’s sent to the manufacturing part of the virus. It's the design blueprint of the proteins that control cellular function and chemical reactions. 

Moderna basically wants to make the virus inefficient with a vaccine that stimulates the body’s natural defenses on a cellular level.

“Literally injecting nucleic acid, or DNA or sometimes RNAs into our cells,” said Janet Hearing, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. “Those nucleic acids cause the cells to make pieces of the virus. And then the immune system mounts a response to those pieces of the virus. So it's a trick to make ourselves make parts of the virus, without the virus being present.”

Hearing said there are similar vaccine trials in the works for Zika, influenza, HIV and Powassan virus. 

But she said a vaccine of this kind has never been licensed before. Most vaccines to date use a living or killed virus to stimulate an immunological response.

This vaccine deals with the genetics of the virus. Other vaccines for the coronavirus will be compared to it because it's the first human trial. The best will be sent for mass production. 

James Hayward is president and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences in Stony Brook. The company is a very large-scale DNA manufacturer.

They’ve partnered with a lab in Italy to test on mice a vaccine they’ve collectively designed. They expect to go to human trials before the end of the year. 

“We've taken the virus proteins that are used to infect a human cell and made a DNA-based vaccine,” Hayward said. “So you in a way manufacture your own protein vaccine that your immune system then recognizes. And having recognized an essential protein to the virus, then destroys the virus when it enters your body.”

Their vaccine targets the virus protein that allows for it to attach to human cells.

“What’s great about this approach is it can be very, very fast, so that it's possible to make countermeasures against the arrival of a newly arisen virus, as we're fighting this time, or as we may have to fight in future wars,” Hayward said, 

And future pandemics is what Hayward is really focused on.

Creating a vaccine for a strain of a virus can be done with relative ease. The challenge is when the virus evolves because of thousands of transmissions. Vaccines are no longer or less effective on future strains. 

Hayward said DNA vaccinations can be adapted faster.

“So to be able to do that, develop and design a vaccine in so short a period of time, or to correct that vaccine, if, for example, the virus mutates is a great, great advantage,” Hayward said.  “And we think at our company that will change the future of the way vaccines are actually developed.”

The good news: Moderna’s human trial was launched at record speed with NIH funding. That means the federal government is willing, for now, to foot the bill on getting an innovative vaccine fast tracked.

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here

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A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.