12 April, 2021

Stanford scientists saved drops of the COVID-19 vaccine destined for the garbage can, reverse engineered them, and have posted the mRNA sequence that powers the vaccine on GitHub for all to see.

The scientists were light on details about how they acquired the Moderna sample. “For this work, RNAs were obtained as discards from the small portions of vaccine doses that remained in vials after immunization; such portions would have been required to be otherwise discarded and were analyzed under FDA authorization for research use,” they said.

According to Stanford scientists Andrew Fire and Massa Shoura, this isn’t technically “reverse-engineering” a vaccine. “We didn’t reverse engineer the vaccine. We posted the putative sequence of two synthetic RNA molecules that have become sufficiently prevalent in the general environment of medicine and human biology in 2021,” they told Motherboard in an email. “As the vaccine has been rolling out, these sequences have begun to show up in many different investigational and diagnostic studies. Knowing these sequences and having the ability to differentiate them from other RNAs in analyzing future biomedical data sets is of great utility.

This project did not waste vaccine material or reduce in any way the number of vaccine doses available to the public,” they told Motherboard. “None of the residual ‘dregs’ that we used for this work came from vaccines that could have been otherwise administered. Think of the thin layer of milk coating a carton that had been fully used and emptied yesterday and sitting on the kitchen counter—if we sequenced that, we’d get a full picture of the cow genome even though the small quantity of milk would be of no use.

The scientists told Motherboard they felt that their peers working at Moderna/NIH and BioNTech/Pfizer had done the world a great service and that releasing the RNA sequences will help continue to benefit humanity. “While anyone interested could data-mine and filter these sequences out later, there is a substantial economy of scale and educational value in having the sequences available ASAP and in not having to guess where they have come from,” they said.

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