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16 Apr 2021
The global pandemic response has both brought increased awareness of the importance of high-functioning healthcare systems and accelerated research in pharmaceutical and medical technologies. Undoubtedly, the loudest medical breakthrough of this year has been the development of a vaccine against SARS-Cov-2 virus made from messenger RNA. This is the first time an mRNA vaccine has gone so far in trials and been authorized for use by governmental agencies. It is also the first time any vaccine has been developed within such a short timeframe.
The striking effectiveness and speedy development of both the Pfizer and Moderna covid vaccines is a testimony to the potential of mRNA use in viral prevention and disease treatment. mRNA holds promise for medicine well beyond protection from covid as it can theoretically trigger the development of any protein in our bodies making it a potential game-changer not only for vaccine production but also for organ transplantation and the treatment of cancer and other genetic diseases.
Advancements in RNA technology are part of wider trends in the pharmaceutical industry including the use of AI and the rise in precision medicine customizing treatment for individuals or population segments. AI and big data analytics aid precision medicine by speeding up patient identification and records analysis for a, in the case of RNA, personalized synthesis.
Most governments have already purchased and begun administrating either an mRNA or other authorized by their health authorities covid-19 vaccine. Vaccination programs are beginning with those most vulnerable and at most exposure risk and will face the challenge of providing a fair distribution and convincing vaccine skeptics of its safety.
Different countries and regions have taken on a variety of approaches towards vaccinations. The EU acquired vaccines collectively ensuring equality in vaccine access amongst member states but slower roll-out rates. The Middle East, on the other hand, demonstrates deep inequalities in rollouts between states. Oil-rich Gulf nations with high-income are vaccinating citizens at speedy rates while worn-torn nations such as Syria or Yemen face the challenge of damaged healthcare infrastructure, political bias in vaccine distribution, and dependence on international aid for purchase. Israel has the fastest vaccination rates globally but is currently leaving out its Palestinian population. India has the most ambitious covid vaccination program aiming to vaccinate 300 million of its 1.3 billion population by August followed by the United States with a plan to vaccinate a million people per day.
The rollout of covid vaccines is an opportunity for the restoration of travel and economic activity. An internationally recognized proof of vaccination — “the vaccine passport” — is a likely near-future requirement for travel and certain job purposes. Given the accelerated development time of covid vaccines, fears about their safety and effectiveness abound, potentially delaying the vaccination process amongst certain population sectors. Some vaccines were given emergency state approval despite the lack of a full peer-reviewed trial dataset eg. Covaxin in India. The mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna have never been used on humans before, but health authorities reassure of their, and other approved vaccines, safety. The biggest current uncertainty concerns the vaccines’ duration of protection, which isn’t well established yet, and their effectiveness against new SARS-2 strains.