The Miracle Over 20 Years in the Making | Technological Leadership Institute
Joining the billions of people waiting for the moment when I get a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, it is impossible not to consider how we got here. The word I hear most often is “miracle" and, indeed, a new standard has been set for vaccine innovation. In 2020, thousands of people worked with skill and devotion in every imaginable discipline to serve humankind. Information has been shared as never before.
Yet, as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants.”
The first mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases was reported in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. Just 10 days later, the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus shown to cause the disease was posted to the world on virological.org. Think about that. 20 years ago, that speed would have been unthinkable.
Our ability to look inside that virus started with work in the 1970s, as academic researchers using laborious methods to do primitive DNA sequencing. It took until 1984 for scientists to decipher the complete DNA sequence of the Epstein-Barr virus, a turning point. By the late 1990s, high-throughput sequencing methods were being explored. By 2003, with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and others, the complete human genome was sequenced — it only took 15 years!
But since then, breakthroughs in both process and computational speed have made DNA sequencing fast and routine; so routine, in fact, that anyone can order a 23andMe DNA kit for $99. Decades of work were ready when a unique virus needed to be analyzed.
To share that information, we had the World Wide Web, conceived at CERN in Switzerland (funded by European governments) and built on top of the Internet (the outgrowth of the U.S. Government-funded ARPANET). But even with this information, traditional vaccine development would take time, and producing that vaccine in quantity would take even longer. That is where another branch of scientific research was ready – messenger RNA, or mRNA.
Katalin Karikó, a biochemist who immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary, spent the 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania collecting grant rejections for her concept of using mRNA to fight disease. She was so unsuccessful that the University demoted her. But with time and perseverance, her experiments proved successful, leading a scientific paper with longtime collaborator Drew Weissman in 2005.
That paper was little noticed, but it did catch the attention of two scientists: one was in Germany, and used the idea to launch BioNTech, while the other was in Massachusetts, where mRNA was viewed to enable a new source of embryonic stem cells. Others yet were shown the work and latched onto the potential to use the idea to create vaccines, which is how the company Moderna came into being.
For both firms, though, the idea is the same: The mRNA contains the genetic information necessary to allow the body’s own cells to produce a viral protein, stimulating the immune system to mount a response without posing any risk of infection. No big factory needed for manufacturing, since your body does most of the work. With this idea, simply add another decade of hard work by dedicated experts, fueled by huge amounts of government funding and private investment, and that brings us to the year 2020, in which preparation met opportunity.
I draw two major lessons from this story:
- Newton was right. Innovation is always built upon a foundation created by others.
- Government funding of basic R&D may not always seem valuable. Here were 20 years of funding ideas that, to most people, seemed like a dead end. But given what we know today, that research looks like a real bargain. The same goes for DNA sequencing and the creation of the Internet. Imagine our world in lock-down without Zoom!
Scientists are driven to explore the unknown. Spurred by curiosity, many spend a lifetime in the expectation that someday a better understanding of the universe will be important. Today we celebrate an innovation that proves they are right.
D. Garde and J. Saltzman, “The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”, STAT online, Nov. 10, 2020.
Anne Trafton, “Expained: Why RNA vaccines for Covid-19 raced to the front of the pack”, MIT News, Dec. 11, 2020.
Wikipedia for background on DNA Sequencing.