A herpes vaccine is being tested by the company that produced the vaccine against COVID-19

A herpes vaccine is being tested by the company that produced the vaccine against COVID-19

Ever since BioNTech and its occasional corporate partner Pfizer announced have developed an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, biotech researchers have been salivating over the promise of using mRNA vaccines on other pathogens. This speaks to the promise of mRNA vaccines: unlike conventional vaccine platforms, mRNA vaccines can be much more easily modified to treat new viruses. That opened the door to the possibility of vaccines against viruses that have eluded immunologists, including retroviruses like HIV — for which researchers are already working mRNA vaccine.

Such is the case with BioNTech’s latest venture with mRNA vaccines: the development of a vaccine for herpesfor which there has never been a vaccine.

It is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2 infection.

Last week, the German vaccine manufacturer announced are starting their first phase I human trials for a vaccine developed to prevent herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) and potentially herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is associated with oral herpes, while HSV-2 is associated with genital herpes, although both can show outbreaks on other parts of the body.

The new vaccine is the result of a joint research project with the University of Pennsylvania that began in 2018 with the goal of developing mRNA vaccines for a wide range of diseases.

Because this is Phase 1, this means that BioNTech has developed a vaccine candidate that promises efficacy and safety. At the same time, the drug company has yet to expand its tests to a large group of patients, which is known as Phase III. In the first phase, the company is just starting to test the vaccine on humans. If the first phase trials are successful, the company will gradually test the vaccine on a larger number of patients to prove that it can prevent herpes infections.


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One of intrinsic benefits of mRNA vaccines is that they are more tractable than conventional vaccine platforms. Traditional vaccines will take all or part of a given pathogen (a disease-causing microorganism), insert a dead or weakened version into the body, and thereby stimulate the immune system to build antibodies (pathogen-fighting cells) specifically designed to destroy them. Although this method of vaccine development is usually safe and effective, it can put scientists at a disadvantage when they need to create new vaccines that keep pace with different mutated variants of a particular disease. In contrast, mRNA vaccines create synthetic versions of mRNA, a single-stranded RNA molecule that complements one of the DNA strands in the pathogen’s gene. By injecting a customized version of the mRNA into the body, the immune cells will produce proteins like those found in a particular virus or bacteria and train the immune system to fight the pathogen in question before the person gets sick.

Regardless of whether the BioNTech vaccine ultimately proves effective, its very existence is in one sense proof the power of Big Pharma marketing. Before the late 1970s, herpes rarely received public attention because it rarely posed a serious health risk to people who had it; the the vast majority of herpes patients are either asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2 infection. When herpes infections are symptomatic, the most common problems include painful urination, discharge from the urine, pain and itching around the genitals, and — most notoriously — sores that can appear around the mouth and genitals.

Although few would argue that genital herpes is pleasant, it was not generally considered a particularly serious disease until an advertising campaign by a medical research company known as the Burroughs Wellcome Co. (now known as GlaxoSmithKline PLC). Since Burroughs Wellcome Co. developed the first drug of its kind for genital herpes, Zovirax, implemented an aggressive marketing plan that downplayed the importance of their drug and instead attached a stigma of shame to the existence of genital herpes. This campaign involved the then-unusual act of a pharmaceutical company paying for full-page advertisements in national magazines that portrayed genital herpes as an embarrassment. The goal was to “encourage people with herpes to see their doctor,” according to a Burroughs spokeswoman at the time.

Fast forward more than four decades and now medical experts believe they may have developed the ultimate treatment for herpes. The upcoming study is expected to be observer-blinded and placebo-controlled, with patients including 100 healthy volunteers with no current or past history of symptomatic genital herpes infections. If phase one trials are successful and a vaccine is finally released to the public, genital herpes could become a thing of the past.

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