Although no one has conducted a survey on the topic, it's safe to say that a single hope unites much of humanity at the present moment: the prospect of a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 9 million people worldwide, killed nearly 500,000, and sent the global economy into a tailspin since it first appeared in China last December.
"We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."
Scientists are racing to make that vision a reality. As of this writing, 11 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and over 100 others are in preclinical development, in a dozen countries. Pointing to new technology and compressed testing protocols, experts predict a winner could emerge in 12 to 18 months—a fraction of the four years it took to develop the previous record-holder, the mumps vaccine, in the 1960s. Teams at Oxford University and Boston-based Moderna Therapeutics say they could have a product ready even sooner, if the formulas they're testing prove safe and effective. A just-announced White House initiative, Operation Warp Speed, aims to fast-track multiple candidates, with the goal of delivering 100 million doses in November and another 200 million by January 2021.
These timetables could prove wildly over-optimistic. But even if the best-case scenario comes true, and a viable COVID-19 vaccine emerges this fall, a gargantuan challenge remains: getting the shot to everyone who needs it. Epidemiologists figure that at least 70 percent of Earth's population—or 5.6 billion people—would have to be inoculated to achieve "herd immunity," in which each person who catches the disease passes it to less than one other individual. "In order to stop the pandemic, we need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates blogged in April, as his foundation pledged $300 million to the effort. "We've never delivered something to every corner of the world before."
The difficulties are partly logistical, partly political, and largely a combination of the two. Overcoming those obstacles will require unprecedented cooperation among national governments, international organizations, and profit-minded corporations—in an era when nationalist rivalries are rampant and global leadership is up for grabs.
That may be tougher than developing the vaccine itself.
Manufacturing and distributing billions of vaccine doses would be a daunting task even in the most harmonious of times. Take the packaging problem. The vaccines under development range from old-school (based on inactivated or weakened viruses) to cutting-edge (using snippets of RNA or DNA to train the immune system to attack the invader). Some may work better than others for different patient groups—the young versus the elderly, for example. All, however, must be stored in vials and administered with syringes.
Among the handful of U.S. companies that manufacture such products, many must import the special glass tubing for vials, as well as the polypropylene for syringe barrels and the rubber or silicone for stoppers and plungers. These materials are commonly sourced from China and India, where lockdowns and export bans restrict supply. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), claims he was ignored when he warned the Trump Administration that a medical-glass shortage was looming before the coronavirus crisis hit; securing enough to vaccinate 300 million Americans, he told Congress in May, could take up to two years.
Getting the vaccine to poorer countries presents further hurdles. To begin with, there's refrigeration. Inactivated or live vaccines must be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Centigrade (or 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit); RNA vaccines typically require much colder temperatures—as low as -80 degrees. This makes storage and transport challenging in parts of the world that lack reliable electricity. DNA vaccines don't need cold storage, but (like RNA vaccines) they remain experimental. They've never been approved to treat any human disease.
Tracking vaccine distribution is another conundrum for low- to-middle-income countries. "Supply chain management is really about information," explains Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Better Evidence project at Harvard's Ariadne Labs. "It's about leveraging data to determine demand, predict behavior, and understand the flow of the product itself." Systems for collecting and analyzing such data can be hard to find in poorer regions, she notes. What's more, many people in those areas lack any type of ID card, making it difficult to know who has or hasn't received a vaccine.
Weintraub and two coauthors published an article in April in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting solutions to these and other developing-world problems: solar direct-drive refrigerators, app-based data-capture systems, biometric digital IDs. But such measures—not to mention purchasing adequate supplies of vaccine—would require massive funding.
And that's where the logistical begins to overlap with the political.
Global Access Versus "Vaccine Nationalism"
An array of institutions have already begun laying the groundwork for achieving worldwide, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. In February, the World Bank and the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) cohosted a global consultation on funding vaccine development and manufacturing. In late April, the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with dozens of governments, nonprofits, and industry leaders, launched a program called the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to expedite such efforts.
Soon afterward, the European Union, along with six countries and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, held a Coronavirus Global Response telethon that raised $8 billion to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—a public-private partnership that subsidizes immunization in low-income countries. The United States and Russia, however, chose not to participate.
This snub by the world's remaining superpower and one of its principal challengers worried many observers. "I am concerned about what I call vaccine nationalism," CEPI executive director Richard Hatchett told the Los Angeles Times. "That's the tension between obligations elected leaders will feel to protect the lives of their citizens" versus the imperative for global sharing.
Some signs point to a possible rerun of the hoarding that accompanied the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, when wealthy nations bought up virtually all vaccine supplies—denying them to poorer countries, and sometimes to one another. Operation Warp Speed has declared an "America First" policy for any vaccine arising from its efforts. Pharma giant Sanofi recently suggested that it would take a similar approach, since the U.S. was first to fund the company's COVID-19 research. (Sanofi's CEO backtracked after officials in France, where the firm is headquartered, protested.) The Oxford group, which is partnering with British-based drug maker AstraZeneca, intends to prioritize Great Britain.
Yet momentum is building for more generous strategies as well. In May, over 100 current and former world leaders, along with prominent economists and public health experts, issued an open letter calling for a "people's vaccine" for COVID-19, which would be patent-free, distributed globally, and available to all countries free of charge. At the WHO's annual World Health Assembly, all 194 member states accepted a resolution urging that vaccines for the disease be made available as a "global public good"—though the U.S. dissociated itself from a clause proposing a patent pool to keep costs down, which it argued might disincentivize "innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs."
Gavi, for its part, plans to launch a mechanism designed to encourage those innovators while promoting accessibility: an advance market commitment, in which countries pledge to purchase a vaccine, with no money down. Future contributions will be based on the value of the product to their health systems and their ability to pay.
"It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere."
A few private-sector players are stepping up, too. U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson, which has received nearly half a billion dollars from the federal government for COVID-19 vaccine research, has promised to provide up to 900 million doses on a not-for-profit basis, if its trials pan out. Other companies have agreed to produce vaccines on a "cost-plus" basis, with a smaller-than-usual profit margin.
How Sharing Can Pay Off
No one knows how all this will work out if and when a vaccine becomes available. (Another wild card: Trump has announced that he is cutting U.S. ties to the WHO over its alleged favoritism toward China, which could hobble the agency's ability to coordinate distribution -- though uncertainty remains about the process of withdrawal and reversing course may still be possible.) To public health experts, however, it's clear that ensuring accessibility is not just a matter of altruism.
"A historic example is smallpox," Rebecca Weintraub observes. "When it kept getting reintroduced into high-income countries from low-income countries, the rich countries realized it was worth investing in the vaccine for countries that couldn't afford it." After a two-decade campaign led by the WHO, the last case of this ancient scourge was diagnosed in 1977.
Conversely, vaccine nationalism doesn't just hurt poor countries. During the H1N1 pandemic, which killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide, production problems led to shortages in the United States. But Australia stopped a domestic manufacturer from exporting doses to the U.S until all Aussies had been immunized.
Such considerations, Weintraub believes, might help convince even the most reluctant rich-country leaders that an accessible vaccine—if deployed in an epidemiologically targeted way—would serve both the greater good and the national interest. "I suspect the pressures put on our politicians to act globally will be significant," she says.
Other analysts share her guarded optimism. Kelly Moore, who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, oversaw Tennessee's immunization programs for more than a decade, and later became a member of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group—a panel of international experts that in 2019 released a report titled "Accelerating the Development of a Universal Influenza Vaccine." The 117-page document provided a road map toward a long-sought goal: creating a flu shot that doesn't need to be reformulated each year to target changing viral strains.
"One lesson we learned was that it's crucial to deploy financial resources in a systematic way to support coordination among laboratories that would typically be competitors," Moore says. And that, she adds, is happening with COVID-19, despite nationalist frictions: scientists from Sanofi joining forces with those at rival GSK; researchers at other companies allying with teams at government laboratories; university labs worldwide sharing data across borders. "I have been greatly encouraged to see the amount of global collaboration involved in this enterprise. Partners are working together who would normally never be partners."
For Moore, whose 77-year-old mother survived a bout with the disease, the current pandemic has hit close to home. "It's essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere," she says. "Morally and ethically, we have a tremendous obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to an affordable vaccine, irrespective of where they live."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online. For this reprinting of the article, we have updated the latest statistics on COVID-19 and related global news.]
CORRECTION: A sentence about DNA vaccines incorrectly stated that they require cold storage, like RNA vaccines. The error has been fixed.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.