The little molecule that could

A version of this article appeared in the spring 2022 issue Strategy + Business.

A Shot to Save the World: A Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine

By Gregory Zuckerman, Portfolio, 2021

Do you remember the glorious moment when it was discovered that new vaccines against COVID-19 were about to provide a clear, miraculous path from the epidemic? “There’s nothing like it in all of history,” said Eric Topol, MD, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, California. Tweet. “It simply came to our notice then. It’s probably the most impressive. “

The story is about the development of vaccines that have saved the lives, health and wisdom of many The Wall Street Journal Reporter Gregory Zuckerman tells us in his new book, A shot to save the world. There was no guarantee. Success in vaccine development has historically been somewhat haphazard, and as AIDS painfully shows, there have been terrible failures. In addition, we all know that there has been a big mistake in our response to COVID-19. But, Zuckerman writes, “this is the story of what went right.”

Although the author describes other vaccine technologies, the role in his story is played by a special molecule called mRNA (which is short for Messenger ribonucleic acid) It contains mRNA which carries the information needed to teach our cells how to make proteins; On paper it could make mRNA a useful tool in the fight against viruses and other pathogens such as cancer. But mRNA, first described in a 1961 landmark report by scientists at the California Institute of Technology, has been underestimated for decades as a potential resource for most diseases, as the report headlines, calling it a “volatile molecule” of our body. The mRNA quickly breaks down and disappears within hours. “It was as if Columbus traveled to America and wrote a letter entitled ‘New Continent – Not Worth Visiting’,” Zuckerman wrote. With no small degree of doubt.

But there were certain people who believed that mRNA could be effective in both curing the disease and a vaccine, as it could provide a way to direct the body to fight against various pathogens. In 1990, an iconoclastic scientist named John Wolf, an unnecessary phrase in Zuckerman’s book, showed that you can make a functional protein by injecting mRNA into a cell. In a fit of irony, Wolfe died of cancer in April 2020, his work “contributing to a vaccine system that will protect most parts of the world from the virulent virus.”

There were certain people who believed that mRNA could be effective in both curing the disease and a vaccine, as it could provide a way to instruct the body to fight pathogens.

Zuckerman tells the story of many more puppies, as well as pathbreaking scientists who followed mRNA, along with other less expensive vaccine technologies that ultimately proved their worth. Take the case of Caitlin Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant who worked as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He and a colleague, Drew Weissmann, figured out a way to hide mRNA, which, when injected, crosses the body’s main line of defense, triggering the immune system to go to war. Lots of surprises, some care.

At the age of 70, Carico left the university to join a startup called Bioentech, which was founded in Germany by Ugur Sahin, a Turkish-born couple, and Ozelem Turesi, a cancer vaccine. They also agreed to work with Pfizer on an influenza vaccine. When the epidemic hit, BioNTech struck a deal with the American drug giant to collaborate on a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

Science can be a fiercely competitive field, even when life is at stake. Zuckerman takes readers inside arrogance and ambition that are usually invisible to outsiders. He showed how careful they all were to kill the virus – but how careful they were to kill each other. According to Zuckerman, scientists are not so different from Hollywood stars that they are afraid of fading from the public eye. They “fight with security and think that their past achievements will be accepted and future papers will be rejected.” In this case, the search was on to create a vaccine, but also to be the first. Pfizer-BioNTech, as we now know, competed with Moderna for the development of an mRNA vaccine, as well as with others working on different technologies.

Currently, Moderna is virtually a family name with a market value of over US $ 100 billion. But before the epidemic, very few people heard of it. Within the investment community, the company had little reputation for excessive publicity, not least because of the super-salesmanship used by its hard-driving French CEO, Stephen Bansell, but also because the drugs it promoted have yet to materialize. Product By the end of 2018, Moderna was the shortest biotech stock on the market, and in 2019, desperate to raise money, it had to sell shares at a price that was universal. When the epidemic first hit, big investors didn’t want to confuse the company by creating what they saw as a potentially useless vaccine. Repeatedly, Bansell, who immediately realized the severity of COVID-19, came up short in his fundraising efforts; One of the most touching moments in the book comes when he says, “I wasn’t good enough to do it.” Of course, that soon changed.

Zuckerman writes about the moments we know best, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which have an efficacy rate of over 90% for the first time. “The Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen, social media has been enlightened, and millions of people around the world have breathed a sigh of relief,” he wrote. “For the first time in more than eight months, they can imagine a return to normal.” But the narrative allows us to understand that moment in a whole new way, because Zuckerman shows us our personal moments that were before. Champagne and tears flowed during an interim review of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Sunday, November 8, 2020, where executives first saw performance data. “I love you,” Pfizer CEO Albert Borla shouted at his colleagues.

Zuckerman made it clear at the outset that his goal in writing the book was not to cover every aspect of the epidemic. That said, there is a strange gap: he basically ignores Operation Warp Speed, or OWS, a U.S. government initiative that guarantees billions of dollars to companies, including Moderna and NovaVax, in exchange for possible doses of the vaccine, funding and, arguably, the United States. Citizen first dibs. He noted that Pfizer-BioNTech has decided not to participate in OWS, but he has downplayed the role of the government elsewhere that you can move away believing his book is irrelevant, and that companies that have raised all their funds from private investors and their Ready to produce its own, which is exactly what happened.

The book concludes with an exuberant moment when it seems that vaccines are salvation. We all know now that the virus is cunning. While vaccines are a remarkable achievement, the restless optimism has turned into a talk of recognition that it is not over. But even that knowledge is not enough to dampen Zuckerman’s optimism. Because scientists were forced to create vaccines on a schedule that had never been used before, they knew much more than they did. Zuckerman quotes Jeremy Farrer, a British medical researcher and director of the Welcome Trust: “A whole new field of medicine has opened up. Significant progress will be made from the horrors of Kovid. “

Yes, we hope this is true.

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