Shingles is a viral infection caused by herpes zoster, the same virus responsible for chickenpox. It can live undetected in our bodies for years after causing chickenpox until it erupts into a painful, blistering rash.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shingles will affect about 1 in 3 people in their lifetime. It usually goes away within a few weeks, but some people can have lasting pain or nerve damage.

The Shingrix vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 for anyone 50 or older and in 2021 for any adult with an immune condition that makes them especially vulnerable to the virus. It works by boosting the immune system of people who once had chickenpox.

The shingles vaccine is administered in two shots given 2 to 6 months apart. Shingrix is not an mRNA vaccine like the COVID-19 shot, but research is now underway on adapting the technology to develop new shingles vaccines.

Read on to learn more about mRNA vaccines and how they might be used to help prevent shingles.

What is mRNA, and what is an mRNA vaccine?

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a bit of genetic code that teaches the body’s immune system how to make antigens, which are proteins that prompt an immune system response.

Messenger RNA vaccines carry this code inside a fatty covering that is injected into muscle tissue. If you contract the virus later, your body will already know how to fight it.

BioNTech co-founder Özlem Türeci told The Atlantic that mRNA vaccines were like “showing our immune system a wanted poster of a foe… and instructing the immune system to target that outlaw for destruction.”

Shingrix is not an mRNA vaccine. It’s what’s known as a “recombinant” vaccine and is made from combining modified DNA from the virus with a fatty protein called an adjuvant, which boosts the body’s response to the vaccine.

Several companies are researching the potential use of mRNA vaccines for shingles. Pfizer and BioNTech are partnering on an mRNA shingles vaccine just as they did with vaccines for the flu and COVID-19.

A major advantage to the technology is the ability to develop new vaccines quickly. The fact that mRNA vaccines are synthetic and don’t rely on actual virus particles also means they can be quickly produced in large numbers.

While the Shingrix vaccination is considered safe, the FDA has confirmed a link between Shingrix and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Phasing out the old vaccine with the introduction of a new one, as the FDA did when Shingrix replaced Zostavax, might eliminate this potential issue.

Pfizer and BioNTech hope to begin clinical trials later this year.

Messenger RNA technology has been in development for decades, but the first mRNA vaccines approved for use in the United States were the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. Currently, research or clinical trials are also underway on potential uses of mRNA vaccines for:

mRNA vaccines are considered safe. Although the technology has only been in public use for a couple of years, mRNA vaccines have been heavily researched and tested for decades.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines both went through a rigorous multi-step process before being approved for use. The CDC has a website dedicated to dispelling myths about vaccines. It states that they do not cause infections, alter any of our existing DNA, or include microchips.

The only significant complications that can be credibly linked to the COVID-19 vaccine are some cases of inflammation of the heart, which usually responded well to treatment. The most common side effect has been temporary soreness or swelling at the injection site, which is common with vaccinations of all types.

Shingrix has proven to be safe and effective in protecting older and immunocompromised adults from the virus that causes shingles. It boosts the immune system of adults who’ve had chickenpox and are at risk of developing shingles.

The success of the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines has prompted research and work on a similar vaccine for other conditions, including shingles. If current trials prove successful, they could be available for public use soon.