In the late 1650's the French polymath and renowned scientist Blaise Pascal, having undergone a religious experience that transformed him into something of a zealot, suggested the following logical strategy regarding belief in God: If there is a God, then believing in him will ensure you an eternity of bliss, while not believing in him could earn you an eternal sentence to misery.
On the other hand, if there is no God, believing in him anyway will cost you very little, and not believing in him will mean nothing in the non-existent after life. Therefore, the only sensible bet is to believe in God. This has come to be known as Pascal's wager.
It has a surprising number of applications beyond concerns for a comfortable afterlife. There are many things for which the value of believing something or not can be seen as a cost vs. likely benefit wager, often without regard to the actual truth of the matter. Since science does not profess to have a final truth, and in many areas freely admits its incomplete knowledge, Pascal's wager can provide a useful method of deciding between two alternatives.
For example, it seems that a significant percentage of the population is suspicious of science, or so we are told. We often hear that some large number, approaching or exceeding half of Americans, do not believe in evolution. This seems remarkable on the face of it because there is no viable scientific opposition to evolution and it is widely accepted by biologists and other life-scientists as being fundamental to understanding biology – from genetics to medicine.
What we are not often told is that most of those who answer negatively about believing in evolution nonetheless understand evolution – or at least the basics of it. They are not stupid, ignorant or uninformed. They have simply made a Pascalian wager. What benefit we might ask is derived from believing in evolution rather than a divine creation? Unless you are a professional biologist it is hard to see how this would affect your everyday life. On the other hand professing a belief in Darwinian evolution over the biblical narrative will likely ostracize you from family, friends, co-workers, your church community - in short most of your social infrastructure. Place your bets.
Can we apply any of this to decisions over the current controversy surrounding vaccination – and in particular the newly arrived Covid-19 vaccine?
While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about being vaccinated and it would be a gross over-simplification to consider anyone who expresses reticence about taking a vaccine, this new vaccine in particular, as being just plain dumb or scientifically illiterate or gullible. They need be none of these things and still may be suspicious of the vaccine.
One issue is safety. The vaccine, any vaccine, is designed to mobilize your immune system, essentially to fool it into believing that there is an invading virus present and to mount an immune response. That way it will be ready when the real invasion comes, if it comes. This seems pretty sensible and preferable to going to war with an opponent you know nothing about. But still, it is fooling around with Mother Nature and some people are uneasy about that. Although it must be pointed out that the virus is not at all shy about fooling around with your immune system and many other parts of you, so letting it have its way is not good policy either.
What about a vaccine made of genes? This vaccine is being produced by what is being touted as a new method using RNA – genes. While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years. So it's not so radical as the press makes it seem.
But it is true that this method uses RNA, genetic material, to make the vaccine. We hear a lot about gene modification and the potential dangers associated with it. Why then am I going to allow RNA, genes, to be injected into me? The first thing to realize is that this is exactly what the virus does – so whether you get a vaccine or an infection, you are getting genes injected into you. The virus RNA encodes around 12 functional genes (by comparison humans and other mammals have around 25,000 genes). The virus only contains the genes to make a new virus – it does not have any of the capabilities of a normal cell to actually turn those genes into the proteins that make up the complete virus. It hijacks your cells to do this – and that's how it sickens you, by forcing your cells to make new viruses instead of what they should be doing.
Now the new vaccines have taken just one of those genes – the one that directs the production of the now infamous spike protein that appears on the surface of a normal virus – and injects just that one gene into your muscle cells, which then make that one single protein. Your immune system comes along and sees that weird protein and makes antibodies to it. These same antibodies will now recognize the spike protein on the surface of any viral particles that invade your body. We have effectively turned the virus into its own enemy.
The viral RNA that you are getting will decompose over a few days because RNA is not a stable molecule (that, by the way, is why the vaccine needs to be kept frozen) and it will no longer exist in your body. It could only become a permanent part of your genome if it were a DNA molecule instead of an RNA molecule – and even the chances of that happening would be chemically remote. So regardless of how it sounds, this may actually be the safest sort of vaccine to use. In the future it is likely that all vaccines will be made this way.
Then, of course, there is the issue of who is running this whole vaccine program – the government and the pharmaceutical industry. These are the guys who brought you opioid addiction, death by Vioxx, soaring drug prices, the worst health care system in the developed world, regulations where you don't need them and none where you do – am I really going to trust this cast of so-called "inept villains," as some believe, to dictate my personal health choices? Do we know for sure that the claims of efficacy are real or just made up to sell some worthless procedure? It would not be the first time. (I would not, on the other hand, worry about Bill Gates having a chip inserted into you along with the vaccine – if you use any social media, navigational tools, or purchase anything online, then Bill Gates already knows more about you than he will get from any injectable chip. So that train has left the station.)
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe.
The Vaccine Wager
All this and a few lesser issues are worth a pause for sure. But we must also look on the positive side of the ledger. Why trust science? Modern medicine and the science behind it has eliminated or dramatically lessened such scourges as smallpox, polio, cholera, chicken pox, measles, rabies and dozens of other killer pathogens that had previously wiped out enormous numbers of people, in some cases significant parts of entire generations. Don't we depend on science for much of the comfort and safety of our everyday lives? Isn't science the way we heat our homes, drive to work, fly around the world, have dependable food? Yes, there is the bomb – but there is also anesthesia.
When it comes to viruses, the only tool we have to fight them is vaccination. The only tool. Antibiotics are for bacteria, a completely different sort of creature. Sanitation beyond personal hand washing is ineffective. Vaccines trick the immune system into recognizing the virus earlier than it would otherwise and protect normal cells from invasion by the virus. Tricking the immune system is understandably problematic for people who believe that their body knows best if it's just kept healthy. This virus, as we have seen from the array of infected people that includes apparently healthy folks, unfortunately does not subscribe to that belief.
By a similar sort of reasoning, some people make the plausible error of calculating that the vaccine is 95% effective but the survival rate is 99%, so why not just let my natural resistance take care of this? Indeed, that might not be unreasonable thinking if we were talking about the common cold, but this virus has shown itself to be a tricky character and we are not yet able to predict who gets a serious case and who a mild one. With those sorts of stakes, you shouldn't wager on either of those numbers because they have nothing to do with you as an individual. Like flipping a coin, there is only a 1% chance of it coming up heads 6 times in a row. But if it has come up heads 5 times in a row the probability of it coming up heads on the next flip is … still 50/50.
An even larger unknown is whether there may be long-term effects associated with SARS-Cov-2, as is the case for many viruses. The 1918 influenza virus has been linked to a subsequent 2-3 fold increase in Parkinson's disease by a mechanism we still don't understand. The virus that gives children chicken pox will hide out in a person's body for 40 years or more and then emerge as a painful, sometimes debilitating, case of shingles. The 99% survivability rate of this virus is meaningless if 20 years from now it causes some devastating pulmonary or brain disease.
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe. Safer than antibiotics which have numerous side effects because they are not part of our normal make up and are cell killers – mostly bacterial cells, but they are not so perfectly targeted that they don't leave some collateral damage in their wake. All drugs and treatments have side effects, but vaccines in general have the fewest. This vaccine in particular has undergone many more than the usual safety measures - multiple independent review boards, massive press and public attention, governmental and non-governmental oversight, the most diverse trial cohorts ever assembled. Nothing here was rushed, no shortcuts were taken.
So here's the vaccine wager. Vaccines are the safest medical procedure we have. They are also among the most effective, but that's curiously not important for the bet. My claim about their safety is because vaccines are in a special class of medical tools. They are the only medical procedure or drug that is given to healthy people. Every other treatment we use medically is aimed at some existing pathology - from a cold to cancer.
Vaccines therefore have to reach a higher standard of safety than any other medical treatment. You can't take healthy people and make them sick. Vaccines have fewer side effects than virtually any other drug you wouldn't even think twice about taking – aspirin, for instance, which can cause internal bleeding, gastric ulcers, stroke. But since you are sick when you take those drugs you are willing to make the bet that the benefits will outweigh the possible side effects.
With vaccines the wager is much simpler – it is indeed more like Pascal's original wager. It may or may not be highly effective (some vaccines are only 60% effective) but they are so safe that taking them poses little risk, whereas not taking them subjects you (and others) to considerable risk, i.e., getting the virus. Like believing or not in an afterlife, the smart money is with Pascal, who I think would have reasoned himself right to the head of the vaccination line.
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.
In just 100 years, scientific breakthroughs could completely transform humanity and our planet for the better. Here's a glimpse at what our future may hold.
The Next 100 Years of Scientific Progress
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.