Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman, co-creators of the mRNA vaccine technology used in two of the most widely used COVID vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, are studying the possible causes of heart inflammation in the recently vaccinated, especially young males. Dr Karikó is a biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania and senior vice president at BioNTech. She has worked on RNA technology for 35 years. Dr Weissman, is a physician and scientist at University of Pennsylvania, and joined her research 10 years after she began.
Dr Weissman said, “Back then, we never imagined that RNA would be used to stop a pandemic, but we knew it had incredible potential.” Dr Kariko noted with some amusement that people can actually identify vaccines by brand. “No other medicine people talk about…who made it,” she said, however she also noted there is some hesitancy to embrace the technology among a sector of the population. “Maybe prior to that, we should have done more work and educated the public so maybe [there would be] less resistance… against the RNA technology,” she added.
Some have worried about data which shows a causal link between the vaccines and heart inflammations such as myocarditis, and pericarditis. Weissman noted he will be publishing findings on that shortly.
Weissman said “What people have to understand is….if you look at COVID-19, the myocarditis that the disease gives you occurs at about 30 times higher frequency. So, yes, it’s true that the vaccine has a rare adverse event of myocarditis, and we and others are trying to understand how it occurs and how to avoid it. We’re actually working on a paper right now that identifies the mechanism.”
Dr Kariko made note of the fact that data shows it is not only the mRNA vaccines which have shown this effect, but also peptide vaccines like Novavax’s as well.
The subject came up at the FDA’s advisory committee meeting Tuesday. Dr. Cody Meissner, a vaccine expert and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital said, “There’s been such variation in reports of the rates of myocarditis following administration of these vaccines that I think it’s very hard to say that it occurs more frequently…with one vaccine platform than with another.”
Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania pointed out the need for more research, “So that we can use that knowledge to make safer vaccines for a disease that is going to be with us for decades if not longer.”
Moderna’s Chief medical officer Dr. Paul Burton, postulated the risk of myocarditis may have something to do with the spike protein, and some way it uniquely interacts with the heart. Burton said “We know so much more about myocarditis today than we did a year ago. I do believe that it is the spike protein….that either causes a little bit of direct damage to the heart, or antibodies that are produced that react with the heart cells.”
As nations heed warnings from experts that the COVID pandemic may not be the last pandemic, lower and middle income countries are rushing to build the infrastructure to construct mRNA vaccines themselves in conjunction with Big Pharma partners, so as to be prepared for future outbreaks.
Recently there have been announcements about plants being constructed in sub-Saharan Africa by BioNTech, Moderna and the Serum Institute of India. The World Health Organization has set up an mRNA hub in South Africa, and Dr Weissman worked with Thailand in the spring of 2020 to set up a manufacturing site.
Weissman said, “I’m continuing to do that worldwide, working with countries, governments, organizations, and to give them the technology to make RNA therapeutics locally. And, to me, that’s probably one of the most important things that I do.”