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COVID-19 vaccines are being administered this week in the United Kingdom, less than a year after COVID-19 became a devastating pandemic. And the vaccines from Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, and Moderna use a new type of vaccine technology that’s sort of like cellular engineering.
Traditional vaccines introduce fragments of virus protein into the body for it to learn to recognize and attack. These vaccines, however, use something called messenger RNA, or mRNA, to give the body a blueprint to manufacture its own virus fragments to attack. I spoke with Safi Bahcall, a biotech investor and author of “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Safi Bahcall: A few weeks ago, my wife and I bought one of these vacuum cleaning robots that goes around your room. Now, you can think of your body [being] full of these little robots. And those robots are the proteins inside your body that get the job done. They do all sorts of tasks. About 20 years ago, 25 years ago, a group of scientists asked a question, “Well, where do those robots inside our body come from?” Turns out, our body has these little 3D printers, churning out those robots. They’re called ribosomes, but you can think of them just as a 3D printer. And you feed an instruction sheet into that printer, and it spits out a robot. So the scientists had this really crazy idea, and they said, “What about if instead of growing the drug outside in the lab and manufacturing it and injecting it, we just slip them a little piece of paper with the software code, so that the 3D printers inside our body generate their own vaccines?” And that’s what the mRNA drug is an example of.
Molly Wood: I mean, this is vaccine development at a speed that no one’s ever seen before, combined with, of course, ongoing medical breakthroughs that keep happening. What does all of this suggest for the next pandemic?
Bahcall: Well, I think it’s incredibly encouraging. The mRNA by itself is very fragile, so you need to code it in something that will protect it. And that’s actually why it took so many years to develop, because just getting that protective coating is very difficult. But it positions us very well, because the next time we have a virus like this, we know what will work, and hopefully, we can get prepared in advance. Hopefully, we can make a giant portfolio of vaccines, and maybe even figure out what are some vaccines that we can make that will attack lots of different bugs that look the same.
Wood: Well, then, in that case, what still don’t we know? What are the hurdles that researchers may still be facing around mRNA, or even other vaccine development tools?
Bahcall: It’s very rare that you have a drug or even a vaccine that works the same in everybody. Some work in younger patients better, some work in older patients better. Sometimes, there are patients who are immunocompromised where it doesn’t work very well. So what you want is a whole bunch of vaccines, and that will give physicians a lot of different ways to try to prevent the disease, but also, if patients get the disease, to try to treat this disease.
Unfortunately, although the vaccine is here, it is not yet evenly distributed, and there’s an MSNBC op-ed that probably has the right of it. We kind of need to pretend for a while that there’s no vaccine at all, because it’s not here until it’s here, and until then, this sucker is spreading fast. So even though bad examples are all around us, keep fighting the good fight with the masks and the staying at home orders.
And speaking of not being evenly distributed, you will, if you also listen to “Make Me Smart,” hear a listener take us to task for not recognizing that hesitancy around these new vaccines also comes from distrust of medical systems that are full of long-standing systemic racism. And that we have to acknowledge that the reluctance of Black and brown people to take a new vaccine isn’t as simple as anti-vaxxer sentiment. And here’s the thing about that: A study from MIT from earlier this month notes that, in fact, while the three big vaccine candidates are 90%, 94% and 95% effective, overall, they appear to be less effective in Asian clinical study participants. The MIT researchers said that could mean they’re less effective in Black and Asian populations, generally. The study’s author said it’s probably because, as usual, clinical trials didn’t include enough underrepresented minorities, so the vaccines are basically designed for white people’s genes. But the researchers said the deficiencies in the vaccines should be relatively easy to fix.
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