Regulatory Policy

COVID-19 Vaccines: An Overnight Success Decades in the Making

A healthcare worker draws a coronavirus vaccine from a vial at the Mission Commons assisted living community in Redlands, Calif., January 15, 2021. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines has accentuated the need for investment in foundational research.

After decades of being told it takes years to produce new drugs, we’ve now been spoiled by the magicians in pharma who invented multiple COVID-19 vaccines in mere months. Policy-makers and pundits will expect no less from technology in the future. And not just for diseases, but for all manner of societal challenges, from cancer to climate change.

Unfortunately, such high expectations for the pace of technological innovation may seduce some policy-makers into overlooking a key lesson from this medical feat. History shows that “overnight successes” in technology are often the result of decades of scientific research. If we want more such successes, we’ll need more scientific discoveries, too.

There’s no better example of this than the story of the COVID-19 vaccines.

On May 15, 2020, the government launched Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership focused on accelerating development, manufacture, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Who could have guessed back then that the biggest obstacle to success would be the logistics of distribution, rather than the alchemy of invention? On December 11, 2020, the FDA approved the first vaccine, created by Pfizer, based on a new technology that utilizes “messenger RNA” (mRNA). Another from Moderna soon followed — an impressive timeline. But the story really began in April 1960.

On Good Friday, almost exactly 60 years before Operation Warp Speed began, a group of scientists met in the rooms of the biologist Sydney Brenner in Cambridge, England. Brenner had been studying the relationship between DNA and RNA with Francis Crick, the famous scientist who, with James Watson, had seven years before discovered the double helix. In attendance was François Jacob, who was part of a French group that had recently discovered a short-lived “messenger” molecule, which they simply dubbed “X.”

The French and British groups assumed they were working on different scientific puzzles. But, as Jacob later recounted, when he began to explain his team’s findings, Brenner and Crick both jumped out of their chairs and started to shout, each trying to articulate before the other what they had realized simultaneously. Brenner and Crick’s insight — soon to be confirmed experimentally — was that the molecule discovered by the French was the very same one they had been studying. It was subsequently named mRNA.

Fast-forward three decades to the 1990s: Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-American biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania was doggedly exploring medical uses for mRNA. That idea was circulating in the research community but was mostly viewed unfavorably. In fact, after years of setbacks, Karikó was demoted for failing to produce results. Karikó was ultimately vindicated, however, when she and her collaborator Drew Weissman hit on the magic formula in 2005. (Karikó is now a senior vice president at BioNTech, the German company that partnered with Pfizer to develop the vaccine.)

The mRNA process is faster, cheaper, and easier to scale than that of traditional vaccines. Conventional vaccines introduce antigens into the body by injecting an inactive or attenuated virus to stimulate the creation of antibodies that will counter a live virus. By contrast, the new vaccines use synthetic mRNA to deliver genetic instructions to the body for how to produce its own antigens.

None of this would have been possible without first discovering mRNA itself. As with other scientific breakthroughs, that discovery emerged from many individuals and groups, some working collaboratively, others independently, many simultaneously and over the course of decades. Importantly, the core insights did not come from trying to invent medicines or immunotherapies, as important and challenging as these ventures are. They came, rather, from trying to understand the molecular structure of life.

It’s a common story. It was the same dynamic for the technologies that won World War II. The government played a huge role in developing and deploying radar, computing, and the bomb, which is why nearly all major government efforts to direct research have since been likened to World War II. As with Operation Warp Speed, these inventions were made possible by foundational discoveries made long before — including advances in electromagnetic theory, mathematical logic, and atomic physics stretching back into the 19th century.

Crucially, most of these discoveries were not driven by practical needs, even if the scientists involved were often aware of the potential for applications. Basic science is focused on discovery rather than invention. And the inventions spurred by such discoveries often come much later, and they are annoyingly hard to predict.

This is not an appealing dynamic for policy-makers. It’s much more comforting to believe we can simply direct research to achieve near-term goals. But discovery and invention don’t work that way. If we want more overnight technology successes tomorrow, we’ll need to nurture the ecosystem of scientific discovery today. However unsatisfying politically, that’s what it will take to lay the groundwork for the next Manhattan Project or Operation Warp Speed to conquer future crises.


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