As David Heath and Gus Garcia-Roberts report in their gripping story at USA Today, credit for the swift development of the COVID-19 vaccine goes to an unheralded team of scientists and a series of pivotal discoveries in the last 15 years, all of which paved the way for the Moderna vaccine. Barney Graham is the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. He’s dedicated his career to studying viruses and developing vaccine candidates, most recently for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which reached the U.S. in 2016, and later Nipah, the virus spread by bats that broke out in India in 2018 (and inspired the movie Contagion). It’s Graham’s years-long effort — and the work of “a constellation of unsung scientists” including Jason McLellan and Kizzmekia Corbett — that put the pieces in place for Moderna’s rapid turnaround.
Not only is Heath and Garcia-Roberts’ piece a compelling read, it’s very accessible in its explanations and illustrations on how SARS-CoV-2 attacks and infects the human body, and how the Moderna vaccine actually works.
As Graham got word through back channels that the new virus in China was probably a coronavirus, he reached out to Moderna’s CEO, who was vacationing in France. We should scratch the Nipah plan, he urged Stephane Bancel in a Jan. 6 email, in favor of a different proof of concept related to the Wuhan outbreak.
“If it’s a SARS-like coronavirus, we know what to do,” Graham wrote. “This would be a great time to run the drill for how quickly can you have a scalable vaccine.”
Graham later laid out the idea for Fauci, his boss’s boss, in a conference room at NIH. Fauci is no micromanager; he hadn’t even been aware until then how confident Graham was in his ability to make a coronavirus vaccine.
There had been two other novel coronaviruses since 2003, although neither SARS nor MERS were terribly contagious and neither became pandemics. In early January, there was no reason to assume COVID-19 would be any different. Yet Graham already had his team diving into how to defeat the new coronavirus just to prove it could be done. Fauci was sold.
“Let’s go full-blown,” he said. “Let’s make a vaccine.”
Fauci had already set aside $5 million for the small Nipah demonstration project. Graham asked if there would there be millions more available.
“Barney, let me worry about the money,” Fauci replied.
If everything went perfectly, Graham said a vaccine could be ready within 12 to 18 months – the prediction Fauci would soon make public.