Scientists reverse-engineered the Moderna vaccine, post RNA sequence online for free

Researchers at Stanford University sequenced the RNA components of the initial Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, then posted the two-page-long sequences in their entirety on GitHub.

Credit: Flickr/ Marco Verch.

One of the few good things out of this pandemic was that urgency of the matter fast-tracked RNA-based vaccines, which could end up being far cheaper and quicker to make than traditional vaccines.

Unlike a normal vaccine, RNA vaccines work by introducing an mRNA sequence (the genetic molecule which instructs cells what to build) which is coded for a specific antigen. Once produced within the body, the antigen is recognized by the immune system, preparing it to fight the real thing. In the case of COVID, the antigen is the coronavirus spike protein, which it uses to attach itself to cells and infect people.

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Besides COVID, mRNA vaccines could prove more effective against other rapidly evolving pathogens like influenza, Ebola, Zika, HIV, and even cancers.

Although RNA vaccines can be designed and produced much faster than conventional vaccines that contain inactivated disease-causing organisms or proteins made by the pathogen, the COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech still required a huge effort to bring to market. And now a team of researchers from Stanford have posted the two vaccines’ genetic sequences online.

They used samples left in used vials that were supposed to be discarded after vaccine shots were portioned for immunization. Instead of throwing them into the bin, the Stanford scientists prepared and sequenced the RNA in the samples with FDA authorization for research use.

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“Sharing of sequence information for broadly used therapeutics has the benefit of allowing any researchers or clinicians using sequencing approaches to rapidly identify such sequences as therapeutic-derived rather than host or infectious in origin,” wrote the researchers in a document describing their procedure on GitHub.

The Stanford researchers added that anyone with access to their hardware could data-mine and filter the genetic sequences in these vaccines. Previously, another group used publicly available information about the Pfizer-BioNTech information to figure out its RNA sequence.

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Having the mRNA code used in novel vaccines currently being rolled out to millions of people is like having access to the code of open source software. It means anyone can study the code and perhaps improve on it.

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