A research team at Monash University are working on developing Australia’s first mRNA vaccine candidate, with phase 1 trials set to begin in October or November this year.

Although the vaccine under development works by the same principles as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by using a genetic code called RNA to spark the production of the coronavirus’s specific spike protein, there are key notable differences.

Firstly, the Monash mRNA vaccine directs cells to make a small part of the spike protein, the receptor binding domain. The receptor binding domain is the tip of the spike protein which is the part that is mutating to form new variants of COVID disease. Targeting this part of the spike protein allows variant-specific responses, for which there is a strong clinical need.

Secondly, existing vaccines are modelled on the original strain of the virus first detected in Wuhan, however, the Monash mRNA vaccine has since been changed to sequence the Beta strain – a strain which was first detected in South Africa for which vaccines created from the original variant are less effective.

This highlights the flexibility of mRNA vaccines with sequences being able to be changed and adapted to new variants that have emerged and that may emerge in the future.

Plans are underway for the vaccine to be developed locally, an important step in developing Australia’s capacity for mRNA vaccine production and the newly developing Australian RNA biotechnology sector overall.

The Conversation: What’s Australia’s first local Pfizer-style COVID vaccine? And when might it be in our arms? An mRNA expert explains