After Jackie Costanzo's mother broke her right hip in a fall, she needed more hands-on care in her assisted-living apartment near Sacramento, California. A social worker from her health plan suggested installing a video camera to help ensure those services were provided.
Without the camera, Costanzo wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
When Costanzo placed the device in May 2018, she informed the administrator and staff, and at first, there were no objections. The facility posted a sign on the apartment's front door, alerting anyone who entered of recording in progress.
But this past spring, a new management company came across the sign and threatened to issue a 30-day eviction notice to her 93-year-old mother, Louise Munch, who has dementia, for violating a policy that prohibits cameras in residents' rooms. With encouragement from California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Costanzo researched the state's regulations but couldn't find anything to support or deny camera use. She refused to remove the recording device and prevailed.
"In essence, my mom was 'grandfathered in' because she moved in under a management company that did not specify that residents could not have cameras," says Costanzo, 73, a retired elementary schoolteacher who lives a three-hour drive away, in Silicon Valley, and visits one day every two weeks. Without the camera, Costanzo, who is her mother's only surviving child, wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
As technological innovations enable next of kin to remain apprised of the elderly's daily care in long-term care facilities, surveillance cameras bring legal and privacy issues to the forefront of a complex ethical debate. Families place them overtly or covertly—disguised in a makeshift clock radio, for instance—when they suspect or fear abuse or neglect, so they can maintain a watchful eye, perhaps deterring egregious behavior. But the cameras also capture intimate caregiving tasks, such as bathing and toileting, as well as dressing and undressing, which may undermine the dignity of residents.
So far, laws or guidelines in eight states—Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have granted families the rights to install cameras in a resident's room. In addition, about 15 other states have proposed legislation. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have put forth regulatory compliance guidance, according to a column published in the July/August 2018 issue of Annals of Long-Term Care.
The increasing prevalence of this legislation has placed it on the radar of long-term care providers. It also suggests a trend to clarify responsible camera use in monitoring services while respecting privacy, says Victor Lane Rose, the column's editor and director of aging services at ECRI Institute, a health care nonprofit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In most cases, a resident's family installs a camera or instigates a request in hopes of sparing their loved one from the harms of abuse, says James Wright, a family physician who serves as the ethics committee's vice chair of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine in Columbia, Maryland. A camera also allows the family to check in on the resident from afar and remain on alert for a potential fall or agitated state, he says.
"It's rare that a facility will have 24-hour presence in a patient's room. You won't have a nurse in there all the time," says Wright, who is also medical director of two long-term care centers and one assisted-living facility around Richmond, Virginia. Particularly "with dementia, the family often wonders" if their loved one is safe.
While offering families peace of mind, he notes that video cameras can also help exonerate caregivers accused of abuse or theft. Hearing aids, which typically cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each, often go missing. By reviewing a video together, families and administrators may find clues to a device's disappearance. Conversely, Wright empathizes with the main counterargument against camera use, which is the belief that "invasion of privacy is also invasion of human dignity."
In respecting modesty, ethical questions abound over whether a camera should be turned off when a patient is in the midst of receiving personal care, such as dressing and undressing or using bedpans. Other ethical issues revolve around who may access the recordings, says Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care in Washington, D.C.
Video cameras, she contends, are only one tool in shielding residents from abuse. They are "not substitutes for personal involvement," she says. "People need to be very vigilant visiting their family members, and facilities have a responsibility to ensure that residents are free of abuse."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding.
Educating employees in abuse prevention becomes paramount, and families should ask about staff training before placing their loved one in a long-term care facility, Smetanka says. Prior to installing a camera, she recommends consulting an attorney who is familiar with this issue.
But thoughts of a camera often don't occur to families until an adverse event affects their loved one, says Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.
"These cameras can show exactly what's going on," she explains, noting that prosecutors have used the recordings in litigation. "When residents have injuries of unknown origin" and they can't verbalize what happened to them, "the cameras may document that yes, the resident was actually hit by somebody."
With a resident's safety and security being "the most important consideration," the American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., which represents long-term and post-acute care providers, supports allowing states, clinicians, and patients to decide about camera use on a local level, says David Gifford, senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs and chief medical officer.
"We've seen some success with tools such as permissive legislation, where residents and their loved ones have the ability to determine whether a camera is right for them while working with the center openly and ensuring the confidentiality of other residents," says Gifford, who practiced as a geriatrician. "It is important to note, however, that surveillance cameras are still only one element of the quality matrix. We can never hope to truly improve quality care by catching bad actors after the fact."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding. Low wages and morale are tied to high turnover, and cameras don't address this overarching problem, says Clara Berridge, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has co-authored articles on surveillance devices in elder care.
Employees often don't perceive a nursing assistant position as a long-term career trajectory and may not feel vested in the workplace. Training in the recognition and reporting of abuse becomes ineffective when workers quit shortly thereafter. Many must juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Staffing shortages are endemic, leading to inadequate oversight of residents and voicing of abuse complaints, she says.
In Berridge's assessment, cameras may do more harm than good. Respondents to a survey she conducted of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the United States found that recording devices tend to fuel workers' anxiety amid a culture that further demoralizes and dehumanizes the care they provide.
Consent becomes particularly thorny in shared rooms, which are more common than not in nursing homes. States that permit in-room cameras mandate that roommates or their legal representative be made aware. Even if the camera is directed away from their bed, it will still capture conversations as well as movements that enter its scope. "Surveillance isn't the best way to protect adults in need of support," Berridge says. "Public investment in quality care is."
"The camera is invaluable. But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
In the one-bedroom assisted-living apartment where Costanzo's mother lives alone, consent from another resident wasn't needed. Without a roommate, the camera is much less intrusive, although Costanzo wishes she had put one in the living room, not just the bedroom, for more security.
Her safety concerns escalated when she read about a Texas serial killer who smothered victims after gaining access to senior care facilities by "masquerading as a maintenance man." She points to such horrifying incidents, although exceedingly rare, as further justification for permitting cameras to help guard the vulnerable against abuse in long-term care settings. And she hopes to advocate for an applicable law in California.
"The camera is invaluable," says Costanzo, who pays for monthly Wi-Fi service so she can see and interact with her mother, who turns 94 in October, any time of day or night. "But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.