There are several common myths surrounding RNA vaccines for livestock, such as the following:
Myth: RNA vaccines will genetically modify livestock.
Reality: The mRNA in RNA vaccines does not integrate into the animal's DNA and does not alter an animal's genetic makeup. The genetic instructions for an organism are in its DNA. RNA only serves as a messenger between DNA and the ribosomes that “translate” the RNA into proteins. Scientifically and legally, vaccinating with RNA it is not a genetic modification. Once the RNA vaccine has done its job of being translated into viral protein, which prompts the immune response, it is rapidly broken down and eliminated from the body.
Myth: RNA vaccines are untested.
Reality: As with any other new medicine, RNA vaccines go through rigorous testing before being authorised. Since the authorisation of RNA vaccines for humans, extensive real-world data has also been collected to monitor their safety and efficacy. Adverse events are closely monitored, and any potential safety concerns are investigated. RNA vaccines have also been extensively tested in animals, and they have been shown to be safe and effective. For example, an mRNA vaccine has already been developed to protect pigs from Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), which is a viral disease that causes significant economic losses for the pork industry.
Myth: RNA vaccines are dangerous.
Reality: Side effects of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are mostly mild to moderate. As with other types of vaccines, they can cause pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, and fever. These side effects usually resolve within a few days. Serious adverse effects are rare but have been reported. For example, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining around the heart) have been reported in some people who received mRNA vaccines, especially in younger males. However, these cases are rare. A study in the US followed 15,148,369 people aged 18–64 years who received one or more mRNA vaccines and observed 411 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis, or both – that is less than one in 36,000. The benefits of vaccination in preventing COVID-19 far outweigh the risks of these rare side effects.
Myth: RNA vaccines are new and unproven.
Reality: Development of experimental RNA vaccines against cancer and infectious diseases took off in the late 1990s. While mRNA vaccines are still a relatively new technology, they have already been used successfully in humans and animals. More than two billion people have received RNA Covid vaccines and they have been shown to be highly effective in preventing the most serious effects of COVID-19. Similarly, the PRRS vaccine for pigs mentioned earlier has already been proven to be safe and effective, and it is already being used in some countries including the United States, Canada, China, Mexico, South Korea, and in the European Union.
Myth: RNA vaccines will replace traditional vaccines.
Reality: RNA vaccines are a valuable addition to the range of vaccine types already available for animals. They can be used to target specific diseases, and for at least some diseases can be produced more quickly and efficiently than traditional vaccines. However, traditional vaccines will still have a role to play in protecting humans and animals against other diseases.
Myth: RNA vaccines will harm the environment.
Reality: The evidence shows that RNA vaccines are not harmful to the environment. In fact, they potentially have environmental benefits by reducing the need for antibiotics and other treatments. This could help to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, which is a growing global health threat. By reducing the incidence of diseases in animals, farmers could also reduce their use of resources, such as water and energy, which could help to reduce their environmental impact.
While there will inevitably be criticism and fear surrounding this new technology, it is essential to separate fact from fiction and to focus on the potential benefits that mRNA technologies could bring. We all have a responsibility to counter the misinformation and promote the evidence when it comes to potential advances for our society.
For New Zealand, with its reliance on agriculture, the development of mRNA vaccines for livestock could be a significant advantage.
By reducing the incidence of diseases in animals, farmers could improve increase productivity and reduce cost while improving animal welfare; leading to economic benefits for both farmers and the wider New Zealand economy and to long-term sustainability of New Zealand's agricultural industries.
**The above piece by AgResearch chief scientist Axel Heiser was published in Stuff newspapers on 12 July 2023**