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The hunt is on to discover a COVID vaccine that wouldn't require freezers for storage

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The new mRNA COVID shots developed during the pandemic were a major leap forward for vaccine invention. Compared to traditional vaccines, they can be modified and manufactured more quickly. But mRNA vaccines also have a downside. They have to be stored in extremely cold freezers that many low-income countries don't have access to. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on an effort to fix that.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Melanie Saville heads up research and development for an alliance of governments, foundations and international groups trying to spur vaccine invention. It's called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, or CEPI. Saville says the challenge with mRNA vaccines is that their key ingredient, the genetic material known as mRNA, is not very stable.

MELANIE SAVILLE: It will be degraded quite quickly unless it's protected.

AIZENMAN: Right now that's done by coating the mRNA in tiny fat molecules. But even those fat particles only really work when kept at really low temperatures.

SAVILLE: We're talking about -60, -70 degrees.

AIZENMAN: Celsius. That's more than three times as cold as the freezer in your kitchen.

SAVILLE: So really special, high grade and really quite expensive freezers.

AIZENMAN: Which means a lot of lower-income countries can't take full advantage of mRNA vaccines.

SAVILLE: Low- and middle-income countries just don't have the infrastructure to do that. This actually highlights one of the areas of inequity in terms of vaccine delivery.

AIZENMAN: And that's not just an issue now. It could hamper response in a future pandemic, for which mRNA vaccines are likely to be the fastest option.

SAVILLE: mRNA vaccines, you know, for speed of development, are really unprecedented. They are one of the first candidates to look at for any new emerging infectious disease.

AIZENMAN: So CEPI has launched a 17 1/2 million dollar seed fund to help any developers who think they might have a better way of coding mRNA, the kind of ideas that are often too pie in the sky for for-profit companies to take a risk on.

SAVILLE: This is always quite a challenge with early innovation. And, you know, one of the things that CEPI can do is get to proof of concept. Subsequent to that, then it's much easier to get funding.

AIZENMAN: So far, they've picked two contenders. One is a Dutch company that will test a type of polymer - that's a chemical formulation. Another is an Australian company proposing to effectively freeze dry the mRNA onto a patch that's then placed on a person's skin. Saville says CEPI will probably announce at least three more projects in the coming weeks. And she says it might take only a year or two to see which ones have legs.

SAVILLE: Many of these things may not work, but you have to invest in these innovations to really get breakthrough.

AIZENMAN: And she says that's what makes it exciting. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.