U.S. Government to Pay Moderna $176 Million to Develop mRNA Flu Vaccine

U.S. Government to Pay Moderna $176 Million to Develop mRNA Flu Vaccine

(HealthDay News) — U.S. health officials announced Tuesday that the federal government will pay Moderna $176 million to speed development of a pandemic flu vaccine based on mRNA technology.

Such a vaccine could be used to treat bird flu in people, as concern grows about H5N1 cases spreading in dairy cows across the country, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) noted.

“We have successfully taken lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and used them to better prepare for future public health crises. As part of that, we continue to develop new vaccines and other tools to help address influenza and bolster our pandemic response capabilities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a news release announcing the investment. “The Biden-Harris Administration won’t stop until we have everything we need to prepare for pandemics and other public health emergencies that impact the American public.”

Moderna already has a bird flu vaccine in early-stage testing that uses the same mRNA technology that allowed a rapid rollout of COVID vaccines, the Associated Press reported.

Some of the new HHS funds will go toward a late-stage trial next year if early results with Moderna’s mRNA-based flu vaccine are positive.

“The award made today is part of our longstanding commitment to strengthen our preparedness for pandemic influenza,” Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in the HHS news release. “Adding this technology to our pandemic flu toolkit enhances our ability to be nimble and quick against the circulating strains and their potential variants.”

The vaccine development could also quickly target another form of influenza if a threat other than the H5N1 form of bird flu emerges, HHS officials stressed.

The award was made through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a program that focuses on medical treatments for potential pandemics.

The H5N1 virus was detected earlier this year in dairy cows and has spread to more than 135 herds in 12 states and has infected three people to date, all with mild cases.

In a bit of good news about bird flu, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released results of a preliminary study last week that found flash pasteurization kills virtually all bird flu virus in milk.

What are mRNA vaccines?

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce weakened or inactive viruses, mRNA vaccines deliver a set of instructions directly to our cells. These instructions are in the form of messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA – a molecule that carries the genetic code needed to build proteins. In the context of vaccines, the mRNA codes for a specific protein, usually found on the surface of a virus.

mRNA vaccines don’t contain the whole virus, eliminating the risk of an active infection. Instead, they focus on a specific part of the virus, often the spike protein—the structure the virus uses to enter cells. This targeted approach minimizes side effects. Additionally, since the mRNA only delivers instructions, scientists can modify the code rapidly to address new strains or viruses. This makes mRNA vaccines highly adaptable to emerging threats, like new variants of a virus.

How do mRNA vaccines work?

Once injected, the mRNA enters our cells and is read by cellular machinery. This machinery then uses the instructions to build the viral protein. The immune system recognizes this foreign protein as an invader and mounts a response. It creates antibodies – specialized molecules designed to target and neutralize the virus. This way, the body is armed to fight off the actual virus if encountered later.

The potential of mRNA vaccines extends far beyond COVID-19. Researchers are exploring their use for a variety of diseases, including influenza, Zika, rabies, and even cancer. mRNA vaccines hold promise for developing personalized cancer treatments by tailoring the immune response to target specific mutations in cancer cells.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on flu vaccines.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, news release, July 2, 2024; Associated Press

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