On top of pandemic woes, emerging technologies force me to revise my courses!

I am not an immunologist by any stretch, but I do teach a bit of basic immunology in my cell biology course every year — you know, just the basic concepts of immunological memory and core proteins and the innate and adaptive immune system, that kind of thing. I’d heard about the idea of mRNA vaccines, but if you’d asked me last year, I would have said that’s far too speculative for a course that was just an overview, I can’t possibly wedge such a tenuous proposal into the class, and why should I? It has no real world utility yet. Well, next year I’ll have to start wedging. Here’s an article that describes the importance of mRNA vaccines.

…mRNA’s story likely will not end with COVID-19: Its potential stretches far beyond this pandemic. This year, a team at Yale patented a similar RNA-based technology to vaccinate against malaria, perhaps the world’s most devastating disease. Because mRNA is so easy to edit, Pfizer says that it is planning to use it against seasonal flu, which mutates constantly and kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year. The company that partnered with Pfizer last year, BioNTech, is developing individualized therapies that would create on-demand proteins associated with specific tumors to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer. In mouse trials, synthetic-mRNA therapies have been shown to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis. “I’m fully convinced now even more than before that mRNA can be broadly transformational,” Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, told me. “In principle, everything you can do with protein can be substituted by mRNA.”

In principle is the billion-dollar asterisk. mRNA’s promise ranges from the expensive-yet-experimental to the glorious-yet-speculative. But the past year was a reminder that scientific progress may happen suddenly, after long periods of gestation. “This has been a coming-out party for mRNA, for sure,” says John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In the world of science, RNA technology could be the biggest story of the year. We didn’t know if it worked. And now we do.”

At least the article does a lot of the work for me, organizing the history of the technology and explaining its strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I can just assign it as reading in the class, because I just checked the latest edition of our textbook, which seems to come out with a new edition every year, and there isn’t a whisper of a hint of a suggestion of this use for mRNA. That’s how fast this technology has emerged.

The last time this happened was when CRISPR/Cas appeared on the scene — 3 or 4 years ago I had to start including a segment on that in my course, because it was starting to appear in students’ senior seminars, and had such obvious research applications. But there was negligible clinical use, and none of my students had used or been the subject of CRISPR/Cas. Now this fall I expect every single one of my students to show up having been injected with an mRNA vaccine, so I’d better get it into the curriculum.

I do appreciate that the article also comes right out and explains that mRNA vaccines aren’t a miracle cure for everything.

“This is not a magic bullet, and it’s not perfect for everything,” Pfizer’s Dormitzer told me. His partners at BioNTech concurred. “I do not claim that mRNA is the holy grail for everything,” Türeci said. “We are going to find that there are diseases where mRNA is surprisingly successful and diseases where it’s not. We have to prove it for each and every infectious disease, one by one.”

It also makes it clear that this isn’t the product of a single genius making a breakthrough.

The triumph of mRNA, from backwater research to breakthrough technology, is not a hero’s journey, but a heroes’ journey. Without Katalin Karikó’s grueling efforts to make mRNA technology work, the world would have no Moderna or BioNTech. Without government funding and philanthropy, both companies might have gone bankrupt before their 2020 vaccines. Without the failures in HIV-vaccine research forcing scientists to trailblaze in strange new fields, we might still be in the dark about how to make the technology work. Without an international team of scientists unlocking the secrets of the coronavirus’s spike protein several years ago, we might not have known enough about this pathogen to design a vaccine to defeat it last year. mRNA technology was born of many seeds.

The one thing it’s missing is the growing awareness that the missing ingredient here isn’t technological, it’s sociological. The absurd opposition to vaccines in some quarters isn’t based on evidence or reason, it’s a phenomenon of irrational brains. I’ll resist the temptation to wedge a whole course on sociology or psychology into my biology class — that’s why I’m at a liberal arts college, because the students should be studying that with real experts in a different building on campus.


  1. says

    The idea of using naked mRNA as a vaccine is like sci-fi technology for me. It’s so obvious how and why it works but the actual implementation was the greatest thing human-kind has accomplished in my lifetime. This is my generation’s moonshot. 30 years from now, we’re going to look back at 2020/2021 and say, “yep we did that”.

  2. yknot says

    Please keep in mind there are two different ways to introduce mRNA as vaccine. One is the way Moderna and Pfizer do, by encapsulating the mRNA in a carrier. The other is the way Johnson & Johnson does, by using an appropriate virus vector. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages, some we know about, and others we almost certainly don’t know about, and won’t know about for several years.

  3. jrkrideau says

    This year, a team at Yale patented a similar RNA-based technology

    Did anyone notice how obscene this is ?

  4. snarkrates says

    Yknot, please take your anti-vax bullshit and shove it into every orifice you have in the most uncomfortable way possible. There is zero evidence that either technology poses significant risks–and certainly they are much less risky than the virus.
    Or, if you care to do so, perhaps you can cite peer-reviewed research supporting your position and I’ll take back half the nasty things I’ve said about you.

  5. PaulBC says

    Without the failures in HIV-vaccine research forcing scientists to trailblaze in strange new fields,

    Speaking of which, will we ever get a vaccine for HIV?

  6. robro says

    PaulBC @ #5 — “will we ever get a vaccine for HIV?”

    I have a musician friend who has researched HIV at SFSU for 35 years. We stopped regular jam parties in very early February 2020 because word from him about the risks of COVID. We do have a regular zoom party where he has given us the laymen’s version of a report on COVID, mRNA vaccines, and other molecular biology technologies. We have asked him about HIV, of course, and his reply is along the lines of “it’s a different kind of virus.” So, despite the transformative promise of these technologies, there’s more to learn.

  7. PaulBC says

    First off, I do not give the former guy any credit at all for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines. If I had to rebut someone attempting to give him credit, I would point out that anyone in that position would react by saying “We need a vaccine, and pronto.” It’s obvious. I’d make a lousy president, but I’d get that one right.

    At the same time, it says something about his base that few people even want to give him credit for something remarkable that happened on his watch. The people most likely to give him credit are those least likely to appreciate a vaccine.

    As my wife has pointed out, we’re in better shape than Europe with respect to the vaccine right now. (So I did have a chance to work on my rebuttal, but it’s not one I need most of the time.)

  8. naturalistguy says

    We’re in better shape relative to Europe because the U.S. is wealthy enough to afford a huge vaccine buy. Meanwhile in Africa there’s little distribution of vaccines yet, although Russia and China have started to provide some in a demonstration of their so-called “soft power”. The U.K. meanwhile has been delaying second doses of the mRNA vaccines in order to get more people their first shot and hopefully slow the spread of COVID-19 and its worrisome variants in the population. I think the U.S. may go down that road now that a majority of those over 65 have been fully vaccinated.

  9. raven says

    Vaccine hesitancy is dropping.
    More and more people know someone who has been vaccinated. So far, no magic computer chips, tattoos of 666, or demons have shown up.

    There is always a hardcore that won’t get the vaccine.
    The largest group of anti-vaxxers are the white fundie xians. The Trump voters.
    They are just plague rats.

    Ad Council April 1, 2021

    Research from the COVID Collaborative and Langer Research Associates released today found that 57 percent of evangelicals have taken, or intend to take, the vaccine, compared to 77 percent of non-evangelicals, a 20 percentage-point gap. Only 53 percent of white evangelicals, compared to 64 percent of racial and ethnic minority evangelicals, intend to get the vaccine or have done so.
    White evangelicals are twice as likely (30 percent) as racial and ethnic minority evangelicals (15 percent) to completely rule out getting vaccinated.

    The highest vaccine refusal rate is among white fundie xians at 30%. It is 13% for the whole US population.

    They will get vaccinated anyway whether they want to or not.
    This virus is everywhere and highly contagious.
    By getting infected with Covid-19 virus, getting sick, and risking dying or permanent disability.

  10. blf says

    We’re in better shape relative to Europe because the US is wealthy enough to afford a huge vaccine buy.

    The EU (assuming that is what is meant by “Europe”), is — from Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge — “the second largest economy in the world in nominal terms, after the United States, and the third one in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, after China and the United States.” (The populations of the EU and States are also broadly similar.) There are problems in all(?) EU countries, but not being able to afford to buy vaccines isn’t the cause. There does not seem to be one single cause, at least at a country-by-country level…

  11. PaulBC says

    This opinion piece states that the European vaccine rollout has been a success. The author is Joshua Livestro, “an independent communications adviser and a member of the Committee on European Integration of the Advisory Council on International Affairs of the Dutch Foreign Ministry.” Make of that what you will.

    My wife is not a supporter of the former president. She was born in China and her perspective is often orthogonal to the usual American political divide. Anyway, most reporting I’ve seen has claimed the rollout is slow in EU countries, but I am not informed enough to argue either way.

  12. beholder says

    @3 jrkrideau

    Indeed. Be mindful of the exclusive, predatory, rent-seeking legal barriers. Setting aside the promise or shortcomings of mRNA vaccines to prevent transmission of other diseases, the technology will be a public health failure if practically no one can afford it, and only one company can manufacture it.

  13. bcw bcw says

    @3 @12 . Patents on grant-supported research generally include a government right to access and requirements for cross licensing. Only part of the license fees go to the patentee’s, the majority pays the university and supports more research. The big impediments to availability usually come at the next step with pharmaceutical companies and the huge costs of scale up and testing. BionTech (a German company, initially funded with German government funding) tied itself to pfitzer for the mRNA vaccine because they were too small to take on the huge costs of scale up and it was there that the deal got restrictive. The Germans for instance are pretty pissed off at how much vaccine they have been able to get. Biden could exert leverage to make the vaccine more available – and for instance did arrange the deal for Merck to make J&J vaccine.

  14. blf says

    On the “EU” Covid-19 vaccination problems, there are multiple issues. One thing to realise is both the EU-as-whole, and the individual countries comprising the EU, have problems, sometimes related. Different countries have different issues, albeit there probably are some problems which are largely-common.

    (Most of this is either from memory, or is my interpretation (i.e., apologies for the lack of references!). None of the lists are complete or exhaustive, and the descriptions are necessarily brief.)

    The EU is buying vaccines as a block and distributing them to member countries, plus some going to countries hard-pressed to buy vaccines. There are at least two criticisms of the EU’s buying. Both are — in my opinion — valid, but one is slightly off-target:

    EU.1 The EU’s procurement process is not designed for vaccines or (in general) emergencies. It’s bureaucratic, cumbersome, and slow; it’s designed for standardised routine(-ish) widgets, like pencils or firefighting waterbombers. Newly-developed vaccines in a global pandemic don’t “tick” any(?) of the EU’s procurement competencies. So not too surprising it seems to be very messy, and the excuses implausible (albeit perhaps not entirely false).

    EU.2 The EU decided to spread their bets (i.e., not put all their eggs in one basket) by ordering so-much from one firm, so-much from another, and so on. Keep in mind initial orders were placed well before emergency approval or (I think) any Phase 3 testing, so no-one knew who would have, if there would be, or when there would be, a vaccine — hence, in my opinion, the EU tried to do a very sensible thing here. But they botched it. The problem is not ordering from multiple different companies (which is why I think that criticism is off-target), but assuming all(? most?) companies would be successful, and hence only ordering from each company a small proportion of the total needed, adding up to (roughly) the total needed.

      That is, instead of ordering 25% from each of companies A, B, C, and D, the EU should have ordered (in my opinion) much closer to 100% from each of those four companies. In this way, the EU would be as reasonably assured as possible at the time of getting the needed vaccines. And if several companies were successful (as happened), not a problem per se: The EU wants to supply vaccines at no-, low-, or at-cost to countries otherwise unable to obtain adequate vaccines, and hence the EU would have the vaccines to supply.

    A third EU issue (EU.3) is that, for some reason, distribution of the vaccines seems inequitable. For example, both Bulgaria and Latvia have, to-date (as far as I know) gotten almost no vaccines, whilst France, Germany, etc., are getting supplies (albeit at a frustratingly slow rate). I have no idea what is going with this seemingly-inequitable distribution.

    Then, each country in the EU has its own set of issues. For instance, here in France:

    FR.1 The vaccine campaign is lackadaisical; e.g., centres are only open 9am–5pm weekdays. (Changes are being made, but — to me — it still looks to be rather lackadaisical.)

    FR.2 France has a very high rate of vaccine hesitancy. A now-famous poll at the end of 2020 found that only 40% were willing to be vaccinated. (I have sometimes misstated that poll by accident, it is 40% willing, 60% unwilling eejits; Sorry for the previous errors!)

    An issue in Germany (DE.1) is, paraphrasing from memory, “they” are being too perfectionist, and in trying to get everything absolutely correct without avoidable error, are committing the avoidable error of not getting people vaccinated rapidly.

  15. numerobis says

    Agree with yknot that the mRNA vaccines aren’t the whole story. Only one of the COVID vaccines that I’ve heard about (a Chinese one, not likely ever being deployed to the US) is traditional technology — they’re using inactivated virus. All the others let you easily download a genetic sequence off the internet and design a new vaccine overnight, the difference being just the packaging for that genetic information — a lipid membrane around mRNA, or a DNA virus, or raw protein. This has been a goal for ages, with lots of research going into achieve it, but it wasn’t mainstream until COVID made it necessary.

  16. snarkrates says

    bcw bcw,
    I do know that there is no reason to have more concerns about these vaccines than about any others. In fact, the threat is probably less. I also know that vaccine reticency is a problem. Making vague claims of potential harm 10 years down the line with zero evidence is just flat irresponsible.

  17. unclefrogy says

    we have arrived at the place we are in not through science but through ignorance stubborn obstinate ignorance and not just gross ignorance but in large part in a refusal to understand what we think and how we think it. We are victims of our own abilities, We love and live through stories of which beliefs are just one part we also love patterns of all kinds and will invent them all the time.
    Telling stories and seeing patterns are a good thing they are our strength but when tied together with ignorance and self-interest are not so good You get Q and info wars and pandemics
    uncle frogy

  18. leerudolph says

    because I just checked the latest edition of our textbook, which seems to come out with a new edition every year

    At least in your field there is some justification for publishers’ issuing frequent (if not yearly) new editions, though I’m sure it’s primarily to destroy the used-textbook market and continue extracting big bucks from the captive customers. There is no justification in mathematics, particularly in the case of calculus books. But that doesn’t keep the publishers from doing it, even if the only changes between editions are in the exercises, so that an instructor or department that tries to buck the trend is put to the (comparatively minor but very annoying) trouble of writing new homework assignments. Yay, capitalism!

  19. kaleberg says

    Just a heads up. There’s an experimental treatment using CRISPR for sickle cell anemia. So, you may be explaining CRISPR based clinical treatments sooner than you might think.

  20. yknot says

    @snarkrates, bcw bcw is correct. In your haste to snark, you don’t understand what you read. I made no claims of potential harm. My comments describe our ignorance of the relative merits of these new technologies, and apply directly to PZ’s interest in incorporating facts about them into his curricula. I made no reference to traditional vaccines.

  21. cartomancer says

    There are advantages to teaching ancient languages and history. Very rarely do modern events intrude into the curriculum like this.