Why Making the Covid Vaccine was a Long Shot

This piece was originally published in the Seattle Times

An interview with David Heath, author of Longshot, reveals that government, businesses and many researchers discounted 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?

Nick Licata, becomingacitizenactivists.org