Covid-19 Vaccines and mRNA Technology: Not as New as Many Believe

Chad Rittle, DNP, MPH, RN FAAOHN; Lora Walter, DNP, RNC-NIC


Online J Issues Nurs. 2022;27(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


When the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were announced in December 2020 the world was excited that a vaccine was available to combat the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most frequent comments was a desire to wait because the vaccine technology was "so new." This article will concentrate on the mRNA vaccines not familiar to the public and is intended to explain the developmental timeline before and after the genome of COVID-19 was announced. We discuss Operation Warp Speed and SARS-CoV-2 and specifically the development of Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines and concurrent other types of vaccines. Other topics of discussion include COVID-19 variants; effectiveness of mRNA vaccines; and late news about the Pfizer-BioNTech® COVID-19 vaccine. The article conclusion discusses implications for nurses as they continue to follow future developments, become competent in communicating viral epidemiology, and educate patients and families about vaccine options.


In late 2019 health officials noticed a new circulating virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced an infection in Wuhan, China on January 9, 2021 (AJMC Staff, 2021). At first it was considered a "new" virus but by the end of January 2020 the novel coronavirus had been identified in a patient traveling from China (AJMC Staff, 2021). Most readers are familiar with the common cold (caused by coronaviruses), and many have read about the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus outbreak in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. No additional SARS outbreaks have been noted since. Subsequent investigations identified this new virus as resembling SARS and MERS, but with some differences (Healthline, 2020).

In 2003, SARS was reported in Asia and subsequently resulted in 8,098 cases and 774 deaths. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2017). During the outbreak it spread to over 24 nations in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. The spread was facilitated via international travel (CDC, 2017). The outbreak was controlled via aggressive public health measures (Morens et al., 2020) and antibiotics (Rat, Olivier, & Dutot, 2020) to address associated infections. MERS was reported in 2012 on the Arabian Peninsula (CDC, 2019) and continues to be monitored.

SARS is a member of the coronavirus family, affecting humans and largely seen in bats (Healthline, 2020). MERS, another member of the coronavirus family, is found in humans and camels (CDC, 2015). SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) evolved from the SARS virus. It was first identified in late 2019 (Morens et al., 2020), spread quickly in early 2020 and was declared a pandemic by the WHO in March 2020 (WHO, 2020). According to Morens et al. (2020), the COVID-19 virus was most likely transmitted to humans either by bats or another host, such as pangolins found in Asia. The COVID-19 virus spread more easily and rapidly than did the SARS virus (Healthline, 2020).