The first vaccines against Covid-19 aren’t just a landmark in the fight against the pandemic. They’re also the stepping stone for an unconventional technology that could one day defeat other ailments that have eluded doctors, from cancer to heart disease.
The shots from Moderna Inc. and a partnership of Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE use genetic material called messenger RNA to effectively transform the body’s own cells into vaccine factories. The approach had never been used outside of clinical experiments, and just how well it worked against the coronavirus stunned even some of its most enthusiastic backers.
Now, with one vaccine having gained U.S. clearance and the other close behind, the pandemic validation could wrench open a whole new field of medicine.
“We are now entering the age of mRNA therapeutics,” said Derrick Rossi, a former Harvard University stem-cell biologist who helped found Moderna in 2010. “The whole world has seen this. There is going to be increased investment and increased resources.”
In some ways, the global pandemic was the perfect proving ground for the new technology as deep-pocketed backers — including Pfizer — became more willing to take a risk. But the effort was only possible because BioNTech and Moderna Inc. had worked on messenger RNA for years.