Matt Ridley has written a wonderfully optimistic piece at the Spectator about the technology leading up to the fast creation of Covid-19 vaccines around the world.
The first Covid-19 vaccine given to British people this month is not just a welcome breakthrough against a grim little enemy that has defied every other weapon we have tried, from handwashing to remdesivir and lockdowns. It is also the harbinger of a new approach to medicine altogether. Synthetic messengers that reprogram our cells to mount an immune response to almost any invader, including perhaps cancer, can now be rapidly and cheaply made.
He covers the history of development.
Katalin Karikó — the Hungarian-born scientist who doggedly pursued the idea behind this kind of medication for decades at the University of Pennsylvania before joining BioNTech — and her collaborator Drew Weissman may be the Watson and Brenner of this story. They figured out 15 years ago how to send a message in a bubble into a cell and have it read. For years they had tried putting in normal RNA and found it did not work; the body spotted it was an alien and destroyed it.What if 2020 went down in history as the year synthetic biology dealt a mortal blow to future viruses?
But by subtly modifying one of the four letters in the message (replacing uridine with pseudouridine, a chemical found in some RNAs in the body anyway), they made a version that escaped the attention of the cell’s MI5 agents. Further refinements five years ago produced a recipe that worked reliably when delivered to cells inside a tiny oily bubble. The pandemic is the first time the technique has been tried in anger, and it worked: the first two Covid vaccines, BioNTech’s and Moderna’s, rely on these messengers.
And the potentially amazing ramifications for the future.
Now the principle has been approved by regulators, there may be no need to go through the same laborious and expensive three-phase clinical trials every time. Faced with a truly lethal pandemic — with a 10 per cent mortality rate, say — the vanishingly small likelihood that a new messenger vaccine would be unsafe pales into insignificance. You could deploy it in weeks or days.
What is more, at the cost of a few billion dollars, the world may now be able to build a library of messenger vaccines for every plausible coronavirus and influenza virus with pandemic potential we can find, test them in animals and store the recipes on a hard disk, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Moderna’s vaccine was first synthesised in mid-January, before we even knew the coronavirus was coming out of China.