Generations of vaccines

First generation vaccines are whole-organism vaccines – either live and weakened, or killed forms. Live, attenuated vaccines, such as smallpox and polio vaccines, are able to induce killer T-cell (TC or CTL) responses, helper T-cell (TH) responses and antibody immunity.

However, attenuated forms of a pathogen can convert to a dangerous form and may cause disease in immunocompromised vaccine recipients (such as those with AIDS). While killed vaccines do not have this risk, they cannot generate specific killer T cell responses and may not work at all for some diseases.

Second generation vaccines were developed to reduce the risks from live vaccines. These are subunit vaccines, consisting of specific protein antigens (such as tetanus or diphtheria toxoid) or recombinant protein components (such as the hepatitis B surface antigen). They can generate TH and antibody responses, but not killer T cell responses. RNA vaccines and DNA vaccines are examples of third generation vaccines.

In 2016 a DNA vaccine for the Zika virus began testing at the National Institutes of Health. Separately, Inovio Pharmaceuticals and GeneOne Life Science began tests of a different DNA vaccine against Zika in Miami. Manufacturing the vaccines in volume was unsolved as of 2016. Clinical trials for DNA vaccines to prevent HIV are underway.

mRNA vaccines such as BNT162b2 were developed in the year 2020 with the help of Operation Warp Speed and massively deployed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.