An interview with David Heath, author of Longshot, reveals that government, business and many researchers doubted the science that made the COVID vaccine possible.
“Longshot: The Inside Story of the Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine” by award-winning investigative journalist David Heath exposes the political underside of how the race was won. Heath explains the complex chemistry involved in creating vaccines in understandable terms. He also describes the incredible challenges a handful of scientists faced in convincing other scientists and investors that making a COVID vaccine was possible.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Vaccines have been used for a hundred years but explain how the COVID vaccine introduced a revolutionary new approach to making them.
The COVID-19 vaccines are among the greatest achievements of modern medicine. Never before have we developed a vaccine fast enough to tame a pandemic. Traditionally, vaccines were made of dead or weakened viruses. The mRNA approach uses the same method as our body’s DNA to produce a protein that mimics the virus, thus triggering our immune system. Scientists also built on HIV vaccine research to replicate the protein with unusual precision — a method Jonas Salk could have never imagined. That’s why the vaccines are so safe and effective.
You wrote that scientists had looked at RNA but that, “The trends had moved on. Nobody cared about RNA.” How has this attitude influenced finding a new vaccine?
Most researchers thought using mRNA would be a revolutionary advance in treating many illnesses, but nobody could get it to work. Scientist Katalin Karikó spent her career trying to figure out why mRNA kept failing in experiments. Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t provide her any funding. Eventually, she and Drew Weissman solved the riddle of mRNA, but they did a poor job explaining the importance of their discovery. So it went largely unnoticed.
The COVID vaccines were created at speed unparalleled by historical standards. There had never been a vaccine developed in less than four years. What accounted for this incredible speed?
Actually, it took years to figure out how to make them. Barney Graham and one of his scientists, Jason McLellan, made the first critical breakthrough in vaccine science in 2013 while developing a respiratory vaccine that is still in clinical trials. Graham immediately employed this new approach on coronaviruses. He knew it was inevitable after SARS and MERS outbreaks that there would be another coronavirus epidemic eventually. By the time COVID appeared in Wuhan, Graham only had to tweak a MERS vaccine he had developed.
You write that although the CEO of Moderna was more of an extraordinary salesman than a scientist, without him, Moderna might not have developed an mRNA vaccine.
Moderna takes credit for the scientific breakthroughs that made its vaccine possible. But based on my interviews with scientists who made the key discoveries, this is not true. Nevertheless, the CEO of Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, raised an awful lot of money for Moderna, which made it possible for the company to mass-produce a vaccine when the pandemic hit.
How does resistance to vaccinations fit into your story?
Past epidemics, such as polio or smallpox, have been all but eradicated because everyone trusted science and got vaccinated. We even achieved herd immunity against the highly contagious measles virus. The U.S. had only 13 cases of measles in 2020. Anti-vaxxers say that COVID-19 vaccines aren’t perfect. That’s true of all vaccines; however, the pandemic will continue until virtually everyone is either vaccinated or gets sick.
How does the market economy influence the discovery and use of new vaccines?
Many vaccines are perceived as not terribly profitable. To inoculate the whole world, vaccines must be very cheap, like a dollar a shot. Moderna wasn’t all that interested in vaccines at first. The company didn’t think they’d be that lucrative. But, over time, it became clear that vaccines were the easiest way to show how mRNA could work as a marketable product and make money for the company.
You wrote that “The brutal truth is that this is not likely the last pandemic we will face. There is a high probability that we will see new strains of novel coronaviruses in the future.”
As weary as we are of this pandemic, keep in mind that this is the third novel coronavirus epidemic in the past 20 years. Thousands of other coronavirus strains in bats could leap to humans. The worst-case scenario would be a virus as contagious as the omicron variant and as deadly as MERS, where 35% of those infected die.
Is there currently sufficient government oversight to assure that vaccine trials are safe and the results are reliable?
Past protocols for testing vaccines on humans were insufficient. In the 1960s, researchers at the National Institutes of Health were using vulnerable African American babies at an orphanage as guinea pigs. There were three trials, and an experimental respiratory syncytial virus vaccine failed in all of them, with two toddlers out of 31 children dying. The vaccine had made them more vulnerable to RSV. To be clear, there is no evidence at all that the COVID-19 vaccines cause vaccine-enhanced disease. These vaccines are among the safest in history.
Why did Moderna initially resist adding Black and Latino participants in their trials?
Operation Warp Speed determined that it was unacceptable that Moderna was not recruiting enough minority candidates. Data at the time showed that people of color were more likely to die of COVID-19 and less likely to accept the results of scientific trials. Moderna’s CEO Bancel worried that delaying the trial to expand the number of participants might mean getting beat by Pfizer, but he relented after pressure from the government.
Did Seattle play a significant role in discovering a new COVID vaccine?
Seattle plays a pivotal role in my book “Longshot” for two reasons. First, it’s the site where the rest of the country first saw that the epidemic was out of control. And second, by coincidence, it was the site where the first experimental COVID-19 vaccine was administered. Jennifer Haller’s historic first vaccine on March 16, 2020, was the same vaccine that was approved by December of that year.
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,000 progressive municipal officials.
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NOTE: This interview was previously published in the Seattle Times.