Matt Ridley wrote a wonderfully optimistic article in The Spectator about the technology that led to the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines around the world.
The first Covid-19 vaccine to be given to the British this month isn’t just a welcome breakthrough against a grim little enemy that has defied every other weapon we’ve tried, from handwashes to remdesivir to lockdowns . It also heralds a new approach to medicine as a whole. Synthetic messengers that reprogram our cells to trigger an immune response to almost any invader, including potentially cancer, can now be made quickly and cheaply.
It covers the history of development.
Katalin Karikó – the Hungarian-born scientist who stubbornly pursued the idea behind this type of drug at the University of Pennsylvania for decades before joining BioNTech – and her collaborator Drew Weissman could be Watson and Brenner of that story. You figured out how to send a message in a bubble into a cell and have it read 15 years ago. For years they had tried using normal RNA and found that it didn’t work. The body discovered that it was an alien and destroyed it. What if 2020 went down in history as the year synthetic biology dealt a fatal blow to future viruses?
However, by subtly modifying one of the four letters in the message (replacing uridine with pseudouridine, a chemical already found in some RNAs in the body), they created a version that escaped the attention of the cell’s MI5 agents. Further refinements five years ago resulted in a recipe that worked reliably when delivered to cells in a tiny oily bubble. The pandemic is the first time the technology has been tried in anger, and it worked: The first two Covid vaccines, BioNTech and Moderna, rely on these messenger substances.
And the potentially astounding future implications.
After the principle has been approved by regulators, the same tedious and expensive three-phase clinical trials may not need to be performed every time. In the face of a truly deadly pandemic – with a 10 percent death rate, for example – the vanishingly small probability that a new messenger vaccine will become unsafe fades into insignificance. You can deploy it in weeks or days.
In addition, at the cost of billions of dollars, the world can now build a library of messenger vaccines for every plausible coronavirus and influenza virus with pandemic potential, test them on animals, and keep the prescriptions on a hard drive ready to use. Moderna’s vaccine was first synthesized in mid-January, before we even knew the coronavirus came from China.
The full article by Matt Ridley is available from The Spectator.