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'A Shot To Save the World' chronicles the race for a COVID-19 vaccine

A registered nurse draws a dose from a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
A registered nurse draws a dose from a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman about his new book “A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine.”

Book Excerpt: ‘A Shot to Save the World’

By Gregory Zuckerman

Ugur Sahin and Stephane Bancel believed in messenger RNA.

Few others did.

We all depend on mRNA. The molecule carries copies of the DNA’s genetic instructions to the cytoplasm of the cell. There, the instructions are translated into collagen, insulin, antibodies, and millions of other tiny yet crucial proteins. DNA to mRNA to proteins, it’s biology 101.

For decades, scientists had dreamed of developing custom-made mRNA molecules in the lab capable of instructing the body to create the proteins necessary for vaccines and drugs. But by 2019, most scientists had become convinced that injecting mRNA wouldn’t work, largely because it’s such an unstable molecule. After moving within the cell to the cytoplasm and providing necessary instructions to create proteins, mRNA is usually degraded, broken down, in a matter of hours. Just as a spare tire can hold up on a short drive but will break down on an arduous cross-country trip, researchers agreed it was folly to expect mRNA to survive a solo trip into the cell, in the hope that it could produce sufficient proteins. Everyone knew that the moment mRNA was injected, it would come into contact with bodily fluids chock-full of enzymes that would immediately chop it up.

Sahin, who ran biotech company BioNTEch in Mainz, Germany, was determined to prove mRNA could be the  basis of effective vaccines and drugs. By the summer of 2019, he and his scientists had made progress using mRNA. They thought they could produce protective mRNA vaccines. But they still weren’t sure.

By then, BioNTech had been around for nine years, but only one drug was in a medium-stage phase 2 trial. Just 250 patients had even been treated with BioNTech’s vaccines. It only hoped to start its first study of an influenza vaccine by the end of 2020.

Şahin wanted BioNTech to go public, so it could raise the cash to further its research, but he kept hearing the same thing: His company was “too complex.”

“There was skepticism about our vision,” Şahin says.

Şahin believed in his company and his approach. It wasn’t clear how many others did.

• • •

Things were even grimmer for Bancel and the Cambrdige, Ma. company he ran, Moderna, in late 2019. By then, cash from investors had stopped pouring in and the company was resorting to cutting its research budget and other costs. In executive meetings, Bancel emphasized the need to stretch each dollar, and employees were told to reduce travel and other expenses, a frugality they were advised would last several years.

“We were freaked out about money,” says Moderna president, Stephen Hoge.

Bancel, Hoge, and other top executives tried to shield staffers from the money worries so they could focus on their research, but there was only so much they could do. Employees knew the company had enough cash to last a couple years.

Bancel and his colleagues were still convinced that injecting mRNA molecules packed with genetic instructions could get the body to produce proteins capable of teaching the immune system to protect against disease.

Years of sniping from critics had taken a toll on Moderna, however. At the end of 2019, the company’s shares were 15 percent below their IPO price, making it hard for Bancel to raise new money to keep the business going.

• • •

In late 2019, Bancel flew with his family to their home in southern France for the holiday season. Waking up early with a cup of tea nearby, Bancel read about the lung disease that was spreading in southern China. Bancel began emailing Barney Graham, a senior government scientist.

“Do you know what it is?” Bancel asked.

Graham said he and his team were aware of the outbreak. Rumors on Twitter and China’s Weibo social-media platform pointed to a cluster of pneumonia cases around the city of Wuhan, in southern China. Graham had already emailed a younger scientist in his lab, Kizzmekia Corbett, saying they needed to prepare for whatever was emerging in that country. Details were scant, though—Graham didn’t even know if a virus or bacteria was causing the infections. Bancel couldn’t stop thinking about the spreading illness. He sent more messages to Graham, who promised to let Bancel know as soon as he learned the cause of the sickness. A few days later, Bancel and his family flew back to Boston, but he couldn’t get the outbreak out of his mind.

Bancel’s scientists had no experience with bacterial infections, so if that was the problem, Moderna couldn’t be of much help. But if a new virus was in fact emerging, maybe his team could do something about it, he thought. Perhaps they could finally show that mRNA worked, proving the skeptics wrong. Maybe Bancel and Moderna could help stop the new virus.

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.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.