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Is this the beginning of an mRNA vaccine revolution?

The past few months have brought a number of scientific terms to public attention. We’ve had to digest R (a virus’s reproduction number) and PCR (the polymerase chain reaction method of testing). And now there’s mRNA. This last one has featured heavily in recent news reports because of the spectacular results of two new mRNA vaccines against coronavirus. It stands for “messenger ribonucleic acid”, a label familiar enough if you studied biology at O-level or GCSE, but otherwise hardly a household name. Even in the field of vaccine research, if you had said as recently as 10 years ago that you could protect people from infections by injecting them with mRNA, you would have provoked some puzzled looks.

Whether or not mRNA now becomes the preferred way to make novel vaccines, it is clear that a global disaster on the scale of the pandemic spurs innovation at a much faster rate. This is not just the consequence of all the resources and funding made available to those with solutions that might usually be regarded with more scepticism; it is also driven by the remarkable things that humans can achieve when thrust together by circumstances and given a common purpose. While we like to lionise individual heroes and leaders, scientific advances like mRNA vaccines are always the product of the collaborative efforts of many people with diverse skills and backgrounds.

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