Episode 336
Dec 8, 2020

How we got a COVID-19 vaccine so fast

On today's show: the technology and economics behind mRNA and vaccine development.

The United Kingdom administered its first COVID-19 vaccine today, nine months after the World Health Organization first declared the pandemic and a little less than a year from the first recorded cases.

Last December, the effectiveness of this kind of vaccine was an open question. These new shots use messenger RNA to give the immune system an “instruction sheet” for fighting off COVID-19. This mRNA technology has been around for about a decade, but hasn’t been used successfully in a vaccine before now.

“It’s just like a sheet of paper that you slide into a printer, and that 3D printer just manufactures [the treatment],” said biotech investor Safi Bahcall, who wrote the book “Loonshots.” “So you get to bypass what would ordinarily take years, but now is shortened to months, of development work.”

Today, Bahcall walks us through something like 150 years of pharmaceutical history, how mRNA will change vaccine development and what he hopes the new administration will do to foster innovations. Oh, and we’ll ask him why that Pfizer vaccine has to be kept so dang cold.

Later in the show, we’ll talk about another long shot: self-driving cars. Plus, we hear from listeners on military retirement plans and vaccine anxiety among people of color. Finally, we’ll wrap up the show with possibly our darkest answer to the Make Me Smart question yet.

When you’re done listening, tell your Echo device to “make me smart” for our daily explainers. This week we’ll cover FDA emergency use authorization, and election certification. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter! You can find the latest issue here.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Donna Tam Interim Senior Producer
Tony Wagner Digital Producer
Marissa Cabrera Producer
Bridget Bodnar Senior producer