Innovation Monitor: mRNA, global collaboration, and the fastest vaccine in history
Innovation Monitor: mRNA, global collaboration, and the fastest vaccine in history
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor. This week we wanted to dive into a topic that is top of mind for all of us: the race for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Readers are undoubtedly familiar with pharmaceutical stalwarts like Pfizer and startups like Moderna, have heard terms like mRNA, and are wondering about the ethics of vaccine distribution (this New York Times interactive feature on “when you will get the vaccine” is informative and fun).
In this week’s edition, we’ll delve into synthetic mRNAs, the story of the scientists behind Moderna and BioNTech, the players in the global vaccine race, and the ethics of vaccination. The innovation and cross-sector coordination across science, government and business has been remarkable and unprecedented. Understanding how this came to make me optimistic about what is possible when there is a collective effort, amazing things can happen.
Let’s take a moment to remember the courage of two scientists in China who published the initial genome sequence to the world in January. Here’s the tweet that started it all):
As always, we wish you and your community safety, calm and solidarity as we support each other through this unprecedented time. Thank you for reading!
Erica Matsumoto Synthetic mRNA Press around the race to a COVID-19 vaccine has largely centered around two startups — Moderna and BioNTech (which has partnered with Pfizer). At the center of both is messenger RNA… despite the fact that “no mRNA vaccine or drug has ever won approval.”
The idea is that synthetic mRNA — which in its natural form carries instructions to synthesize proteins, molecules that are vital to the structure and function of our trillions of cells — can be injected into the body to “hijack” the protein-making process. The mRNA could then direct the creation of antibodies to vaccinate against infection. As WSJ notes, it becomes an issue of engineering, not scientific discovery: “Companies can design mRNA vaccines relatively quickly once they know the genetic sequence of the pathogen.” This is in contrast to the laborious, expensive, and uncertain process of growing a weakened virus to build up the body’s immune system… over the span of ten years.
Synthetic mRNA only gained serious attention in the last decade, in no small part due to Moderna (the name is derived from, you guessed it, “mRNA”) raising $2.7B.
The method is the brainchild of Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she submitted her first grant to establish mRNA-based gene therapy in the 1990s. Today, researchers are saying Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize. The two scientists took a particular interest early on. Interestingly, one would go on to found Moderna and the other BioNTech.
Pfizer, alongside partner BioNTech, and Moderna began trials on the same day, July 27. Both have now reported over 90% effectiveness as of late, and on Wednesday the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But the story of the mRNA vaccine isn’t just about the science — it’s also about politics and ethics. We’ll explore both in the newsletter — but first, let’s get a global overview of the top vaccine candidates. The players in the race Besides Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, CanSino Biologics, and the Gamaleya Center are all creating promising candidates.
Oxford-AstraZeneca: Oxford University and British-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca were the third company, after Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, to release early results… unfortunately the data was “messy and confusing,” according to Bloomberg (the piece does a nice job of describing that messiness). The vaccine is a “genetically altered adenovirus that usually causes the common cold in chimpanzees” and is the cheapest to produce among Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, according to Wired.
CanSino Biologics: The Ad5-nCoV vaccine (it’s based on “adenovirus type 5”) was awarded China’s first COVID-19 vaccine patent. However, the vaccine’s success rate is not known at this time. Around one million people have received a dose, reportedly without adverse reactions.
Gamaleya Center: Gam-COVID-Vac is developed by the Russia’s state-run Gamaleya Center. Similar to Oxford-AstraZeneca’s solution, it is based on a variant of the adenovirus. However, the data on the vaccine’s efficacy is highly questionable. Recent results have been globally criticized for “inconsistencies in the success data provided or missing data altogether.”
The close collaborations between science and government in the examples above are clear. Both China and Russia’s solutions received government support, and Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech wouldn’t be at the top of the list without the US government’s support. Peter Marks, the brainchild of the top vaccine regulator for the Food and Drug Administration, has said that the collaboration between the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services “was devised to support pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies with the full breadth of the government’s expertise from clinical trials to logistics,” according to this excellent NY Times account. The ethics of vaccination Testing on Humans
Human challenge trials, according to WHO, are trials in which “participants are intentionally challenged (whether or not they have been vaccinated) with an infectious disease organism.” The description is enough to raise one’s ethical hackles, but proponents argue such trials speed up vaccine development and save thousands of lives in turn.
These controlled infection trials have been used previously for influenza, malaria, typhoid, dengue, and cholera. In January 2021 Open Orphan and its subsidiary hVIVO will run one for COVID-19 on paid volunteers aged 18–30 in the UK. One prospective volunteer told the AP that “Every day that goes on, more cases are going on, more people are dying. And if this vaccine trial could mean that this period of trauma for the whole world will be over sooner, I want to help. I want to be a part of that.”
But how much would a human challenge trial really help? As Vox notes in their great deep-dive, “by January, we may already have an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for a vaccine that’s gone through clinical trials…. The reason these trials have been able to get results quickly is that many countries have totally failed to get Covid-19 under control.” Three days after the Vox article was published, Pfizer-BioNTech applied for EUA, and Moderna did so this week. The case for challenge trials, then, may fall on developing a better second-gen vaccine.
Who Gets the Vaccine?
But… who gets the vaccine first? This week, a panel of experts advising the CDC voted that US healthcare and frontline workers and nursing home residents — and residents of other long-term care facilities — will be the first to receive vaccines. Leaders in the UK, where the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for emergency use, reached a similar decision. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — the closest to getting a vaccine out in the US — “estimated that they will have enough to vaccinate no more than 22.5 million Americans by January,” according to The NY Times. Prioritizing the distribution of the vaccine will be the next public health and policy challenge.
Finally, how do we encourage people to take the vaccine? Well, you may have seen that former Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Bush all committed very publicly to taking the vaccine when available. It will take a very concerted public relations push (and maybe some younger and virtual influencers 😀) to get enough American taking the vaccine. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible, and it’s up to us all to make sure we get there.
This Week in Business History This Week in Business History
December 1st, 1999: In the largest sale of it’s time, the domain Business.com is sold for $7.5 million.
We’ll just let the NYT coverage from that day tell you the story:
In what is believed to be the highest price ever paid for an Internet address, a company here is paying $7.5 million for the rights to the domain name business.com.
The price is more than twice the previous known record paid for an Internet domain name — the $3.3 million that Compaq Computer Corp. paid last year to buy altavista.com, the name of its search engine. Compaq purchased the address from a man in San Jose, who had registered the name to use for his software company
This email was sent to <<Email Address>>
why did I get this? unsubscribe from this list update subscription preferences
NYC Media Lab · 370 Jay Street, 3rd floor · Brooklyn, New York 11201 · USA