COMMENTARY: How Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work

COMMENTARY: How Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a massive allocation of resources toward producing solutions, from identifying life-saving medications, tracking how the virus spreads and ultimately to preventing infection with vaccines.

As a physician scientist, I study how the virus has evolved over the pandemic, since any changes in the virus could also change the effectiveness of current treatments. On Nov. 9, Pfizer announced preliminary trial results showing that a vaccine it developed with BioNTech was about 90 per cent effective. That was followed up nine days later with final trial results and two months of safety data, indicating a 95 per cent effectiveness rate.

READ MORE: Pfizer applies for emergency coronavirus vaccine approval in U.S.

Pfizer announced on Nov. 18 that it intends to file for emergency authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Meanwhile, on Nov. 16, Moderna announced preliminary results for its own vaccine, developed with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which also indicated effectiveness of about 95 per cent.

This is good news, but we need to understand what it means so life can ultimately go back to normal.

DNA, messenger RNA and proteins

Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are mRNA-based. In each of our cells, DNA produces messenger RNA (mRNA) containing the templates for making proteins. It’s called messenger RNA because it carries that information to other parts of the cell, where the instructions are read and followed to produce specific proteins.…

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