Is mRNA Technology Safe? Deborah Birx, MD, Answers

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Ambassador Deborah Birx, MD, answers the persistent question of whether mRNA technology is safe in the long term.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been ongoing discussions and examinations of the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. However, both the public and healthcare workers still have questions.

Katalin Karikó, PhD, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, invented the messenger mRNA technology at Penn Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the 1990s. There are several more mRNA vaccines in development, including HIV, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, Zika virus, cytomegalovirus, and cancer. Others are vaccines for individuals with severe allergies, such as dust mites or peanut allergies, heart attack and stroke, genetic diseases, and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

How does mRNA technology work? According to History of Vaccines.org, “The messenger RNA (mRNA) takes the code to the ribosome where the protein is put together. That final protein is what then leaves the cell. In the case of an mRNA vaccine, the vaccine delivers the mRNA to the ribosome (not the nucleus, where DNA is housed), and a protein that looks just like the virus protein is created. When that protein leaves the cell, the immune system recognizes it as a viral protein and goes to work creating antibodies against it.”

Although mRNA technology has been studied since the early 1990s, some individuals still have concerns about its efficacy and safety. Speaking with Infection Control Today®, Ambassador Deborah Birx, MD, a Senior Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas, addresses the question of the long-term safety of mRNA vaccine technology.

“Across the world, billions [of people] have been immunized, Birx said. “So we know about [mRNA’s] acute safety profile. We can definitively say that mRNA technology that is utilized to express this spike protein is very safe in the first 4 years. What people may have questions about is, do we know—definitively—that it's safe 2 decades from now, 3 decades from now? That database is smaller; it's really limited to people who may have gotten the Ebola vaccine. They're now probably a decade out.”

Birx continued, “I know the FDA is committed to making sure that they're studying the long-term consequences of this particular vaccine…. The questions are good. And what we can say, legitimately, as scientists that have developed vaccines, is we don't see anything concerning in the first 4 years of delivery. But again, that gets back to the point of being very clear as to who can benefit from a vaccine, particularly this vaccine. And I think we should recognize that people have definitive questions. That's why we [scientists and the CDC] should be putting out very clearly who should be immunized and the frequency to which those people should be immunized.”

(Quotes have been edited for clarity.)

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