BA.5 spurs new calls to fund next-generation COVID-19 vaccines

The rise of the BA.5 variant is spurring new calls for funding for an Operation Warp Speed 2.0 to accelerate development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines that can better target new variants. 

The BA.5 subvariant of omicron that now makes up the majority of U.S. COVID-19 cases is sparking concern because it has a greater ability to evade the protection of current vaccines than past strains of the virus did.

Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines that target BA.5 that could be ready this fall, but experts say that by the time they are ready, a new variant very well could have taken hold.  

As alternatives to vaccine makers chasing each variant, experts point to research on “pan-coronavirus” vaccines that are “variant-proof,” targeting multiple variants, as well as nasal vaccines that could drastically cut down on transmission of the virus.

There is ongoing research on these next-generation vaccines, but unlike in 2020, when the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed helped speed the development of the original vaccine, there is less funding and assistance this time around.  

COVID-19 funding that could help develop and manufacture new vaccines more quickly has been stalled in Congress for months.

“There’s no Operation Warp Speed,” said Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “So it’s moving very slowly. But at least it’s moving.” 

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week that the U.S. needs “urgent investment” in next-generation vaccines and “we need an ‘Operation Warp Speed Part 2.’” 

Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines that target BA.5 that could be ready this fall, but experts say that by the time they are ready, a new variant very well could have taken hold.  

As alternatives to vaccine makers chasing each variant, experts point to research on “pan-coronavirus” vaccines that are “variant-proof,” targeting multiple variants, as well as nasal vaccines that could drastically cut down on transmission of the virus.

There is ongoing research on these next-generation vaccines, but unlike in 2020, when the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed helped speed the development of the original vaccine, there is less funding and assistance this time around.  

COVID-19 funding that could help develop and manufacture new vaccines more quickly has been stalled in Congress for months.

“There’s no Operation Warp Speed,” said Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “So it’s moving very slowly. But at least it’s moving.” 

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week that the U.S. needs “urgent investment” in next-generation vaccines and “we need an ‘Operation Warp Speed Part 2.’” 

Administration health officials pointed to funding when asked about next-generation vaccines at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“We need resources to continue that effort and to accelerate that effort,” said Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert. “So although we’re doing a lot and the field looks promising, in order to continue it, we really do need to have a continual flow of resources to do that.” 

But COVID-19 funding has been stuck in Congress for months. Republicans have long said they do not see any urgency in approving the money. Democrats, while generally calling for the funding, have been caught up in their own internal divisions, like when a group of House Democrats objected to a way to pay for the new funding in March.

“Of course more funding would accelerate some parts of the development,” Karin Bok, acting deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Vaccine Research Center, said in an interview.  

She also cautioned that development of next-generation vaccines like nasal vaccines would take longer than the original vaccines, because less groundwork has been laid over the preceding years.  

Experts stress that even for BA.5, the current vaccines still provide important protection against severe disease and hospitalization, and are urging people to get their booster shots now. But there is potential for further improvement in the vaccines as well.

Aside from funding, another obstacle is obtaining copies of the existing COVID-19 vaccines for use in research, said Pamela Bjorkman, a California Institute of Technology professor working on a next-generation vaccine. 

“I would say we’ve wasted at least six months,” with various procedural hurdles on that front, she said. “It’s just ridiculous.” 

For example, she said at one point when her team was able to get access to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, it then took two or three months to get an import permit to send it from the United Kingdom.

“This is a hot topic,” Bok, of the NIH, said of access to existing vaccine doses for researchers. “The government is working very hard on an agreement with the companies to provide it to us and to all the investigators…that are funded by NIH.” 

Asked about providing vaccine doses for researchers and any talks with the administration on that front, a Moderna spokesperson said: “We do provide vaccine in certain investigator-initiated studies where physicians and scientists propose research they have designed and want to conduct with our support,” pointing to a South African study as an example.  

More broadly, the White House says it is working on accelerating next-generation vaccine research and will have more announcements soon.  

“Let me be very clear: We clearly need a true next-generation vaccine,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters on Tuesday. 

“You’ll hear more from us in the days and weeks ahead,” he added. “This is something that we have been working quite assiduously on.” 

Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget: 9 healthcare takeaways

President Joe Biden proposed a $5.8 trillion budget March 28 for fiscal year 2023, which includes funding for healthcare. 

Nine healthcare takeaways:

1. Pandemic preparedness. The budget calls for a five-year investment of $81.7 billion to plan ahead for future pandemics. The funding would help support research and development of vaccines, improve clinical trial infrastructure and expand domestic manufacturing. 

2. Mental health parity. Under the proposed budget, federal regulators would get the power to levy fines against health plans that violate mental health parity rules. The budget calls for $275 million over 10 years to increase the Labor Department’s capacity to ensure health plans are complying with the requirements and take action against those plans that do not. The budget also proposes funding to bolster the mental healthcare workforce and boost funding for suicide prevention programs. 

3. Vaccines for uninsured adults. The proposed budget calls for establishing a new Vaccines for Adults program that would provide uninsured adults access to recommended vaccines at no cost.

4. Title X funding. The budget proposes providing $400 million in funding for the Title X Family Planning Program, which provides family planning and other healthcare services to low-income individuals.

5. Cancer Moonshot initiative. The budget proposes several investments across the FDA, CDC, National Cancer Institute and Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to advance President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. The initiative aims to reduce the cancer death rate by 50 percent over the next 25 years. 

6. Spending to reduce HIV. The proposed budget includes $850 million to reduce new HIV cases by increasing access to HIV prevention services and support services.

7. Veterans Affairs medical care. President Biden’s proposed budget allocates $119 billion, or a 32 percent increase, to medical care for veterans. The money will fully fund inpatient, outpatient, mental health and long-term care services, while also investing in training programs for clinicians to work in the VA.

8. Discretionary funding for HHS. President Biden is asking Congress to approve $127.3 billion in discretionary funding for HHS in fiscal 2023, representing a $26.9 billion increase from the department’s allotment for fiscal 2021.

9. Mandatory spending for the Indian Health Service. The budget request for the Indian Health Service calls for shifting the healthcare agency from discretionary to mandatory funding. The budget calls for $9.1 billion in funding, a 20 percent increase from the amount allocated in fiscal 2021.

Drug companies on verge of sinking longtime Democratic priority

https://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/business-a-lobbying/572841-drug-companies-on-verge-of-sinking-longtime

The pharmaceutical industry is on the verge of defeating a major Democratic proposal that would allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford only three defections when the House votes on a sweeping $3.5 trillion spending package, but Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) last week voted to block the drug pricing bill from advancing out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) voted against advancing the tax portion of the legislation in the House Ways and Means Committee.

All told, the number of House Democrats who have concerns about the drug pricing bill is in the double digits, and several Democrats in the 50-50 Senate would not vote for the measure in its current form, according to industry lobbyists.

The holdouts mark a sharp contrast to just two years ago, when every House Democrat voted for the same drug pricing bill, underscoring the inroads pharmaceutical manufacturers have made with the caucus on a measure that would narrow corporate profit margins.

“The House markups on health care demonstrate there are real concerns with Speaker Pelosi’s extreme drug pricing plan and those concerns are shared by thoughtful lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry’s top trade group, said in a statement following the committee votes.

The reversal follows the industry’s multimillion-dollar ad campaigns opposing the bill, timely political donations and an extensive lobbying effort stressing drugmakers’ success in swiftly developing lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.

The bill at the center of the fight, H.R. 3, would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs by tying them to the lower prices paid by other high-income countries. The measure is projected to free up around $700 billion through the money it saves on drug purchases — covering a big chunk of the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan.

Drugmakers say the measure would reduce innovation, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that found it would lead to nearly 60 fewer new drugs over the next three decades.

Peters and other Democrats have proposed an alternative bill that would limit price negotiation to a fraction of the prescription drugs included in H.R. 3, focusing instead on drugs like insulin, the diabetes treatment that has seen its price rise dramatically over the last decade. The alternative measure also would set a yearly out-of-pocket spending limit for lower-income Medicare recipients.

The proposal foreshadows a less aggressive drug pricing compromise that uneasy Senate Democrats are more likely to get behind.

“You’re going to see something pass, but it probably won’t be H.R. 3,” said a lobbyist who represents pharmaceutical companies.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers oppose any efforts to control the price of prescription drugs, but the alternative bill is more favorable to the industry than the broader Democratic bill.

“Any kind of artificial price controls will have an impact on both new scientific investment as well as access to medicines,” said Rich Masters, chief public affairs and advocacy officer at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group that represents pharmaceutical giants such as Sanofi, Merck and Johnson & Johnson.

“We appreciate the focus on patient out of pocket costs, which we know is a critical component to any reform efforts and something that BIO and our member companies have long supported,” he added.

Progressive lawmakers, who have long bemoaned rising drug prices, blasted the three House Democrats who voted to block H.R. 3, saying they succumbed to industry donations and lobbying efforts.

“What the pharmaceutical industry has done, year after year, is pour huge amounts of money into lobbying and campaign contributions … the result is that they can raise their prices to any level they want,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a video message Friday.

The pharmaceutical industry spent $171 million on lobbying through the first half of the year, more than any other industry, to deploy nearly 1,500 lobbyists, according to money-in-politics watchdog OpenSecrets. That’s up from around $160 million at the same point last year, when the industry broke its own lobbying spending record.

Peters announced his opposition to Pelosi’s drug pricing proposal in May and shortly after was showered with donations from pharmaceutical industry executives and lobbyists, STAT News reported.

Peters is the No. 1 House recipient of pharmaceutical industry donations this year, bringing in $88,550 from pharmaceutical executives and PACs, according to OpenSecrets. Over his congressional career, Peters has received in excess of $860,000 from drugmakers, more than any other private industry.

The California Democrat told The Hill last week that accusations of his vote being guided by donations are “flat wrong” and noted that his San Diego congressional district employs roughly 27,000 pharmaceutical industry workers consisting mostly of researchers.

“It’s always going to be the attack because it’s simple and it’s easier than engaging on the merits,” he said.

Schrader received nearly $615,000 from the industry. He inherited a fortune from his grandfather, a former top executive at Pfizer, and had between $50,000 and $100,000 invested in Pfizer, in addition to other pharmaceutical holdings as of last year, according to his most recent annual financial disclosure.

Schrader tweeted last week that he is “committed to lowering prescription drug costs,” while arguing that the House bill would not pass the Senate in its current form.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) another supporter of Peters’s more industry friendly bill, received an influx of pharmaceutical donations in recent months, including a $2,000 check from Pfizer’s PAC in mid-August, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In meetings with lawmakers, lobbyists have argued that now is not the time to go after drugmakers, which developed highly effective COVID-19 vaccines and are developing booster shots and other treatments to fight the virus.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents several major pharmaceutical manufacturers, said last month that Democratic drug pricing efforts will leave the U.S. “unprepared for the next public health crisis.”

PhRMA last week launched a seven-figure ad campaign to oppose H.R. 3. That’s after pharmaceutical groups and conservative organizations bankrolled by drugmakers spent $18 million on ads attacking the proposal through late August, according to an analysis from Patients for Affordable Drugs, a group that launched its own ads backing H.R. 3 last week.

The ad buys are meant to sway both lawmakers and the general public. A June Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of the drug pricing measure, but that support dropped to 32 percent when they were told that the proposal “could lead to less research and development of new drugs.”

Recognizing the importance of aerosol transmission

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Droplets vs Aerosols: What's More Important in COVID-19 Spread? | MedPage  Today

Droplets, fomites, aerosols…these terms describing the kinds of particles which can spread virus particles rose to the top of our lexicon last year. Initially we focused on fomites, infectious particles deposited on surfaces, and worried that touching our groceries and mail could spread the coronavirus.

Scientists were convinced that most COVID transmission occurred via droplets, large respiratory particles exhaled in a cough or a sneeze that traveled only a short distance from an infected person, which led to the guidance that staying six feet apart would keep us safe. But worrisome case reports of a single individual passing the virus to a roomful of people, and the mitigating effects of ventilation, began to hint at aerosol transmission, a much more insidious type of spread in which the virus is transmitted through much smaller particles, which travel longer distances and can linger in the air for hours.

Aerosol spread is not only worrisome because it makes a pathogen more contagious, but smaller aerosol particles can be inhaled more deeply into the lungs, potentially causing more severe illness. A new review in Science evaluates the current data on COVID transmission and the advances made over the past year in understanding airflow and aerosol spread, making the bold statement that aerosol transmission is not only the main mechanism for COVID-19 spread, but is likely the primary mode of transmission for the vast majority of respiratory diseases.
 
Today, our lack of attention to ventilation, air purification and other means to reduce aerosol spread means that we are woefully unprepared for children to return to school—and underscores the need for extensive masking to mitigate transmission. But in the long run, better understanding the mechanisms for preventing airborne transmission could allow us to reduce susceptibility to a host of respiratory diseases. Take complications from asthma, which dropped dramatically during the pandemic—leading researchers to posit that viral infections, rather than environmental triggers, could be the more common cause behind exacerbations. 

Harnessing this new knowledge will require further research to quantify the effects of spread and mitigation—and the willingness to invest in preventive measures in schools and other public spaces, yet another domain in which bolstering public health could have a meaningful long-term impact on our lives.

The partisan divide in coronavirus vaccinations is widening

One hesitates to elevate obviously bad arguments, even to point out how bad they are. This is a conundrum that comes up a lot these days, as members of the media measure the utility of reporting on bad faith, disingenuous or simply bizarre claims.

If someone were to insist, for example, that they were not going to get the coronavirus vaccine solely to spite the political left, should that claim be elevated? Can we simply point out how deranged it is to refuse a vaccine that will almost certainly end an international pandemic simply because people with whom you disagree think that maybe this is a good route to end that pandemic? If someone were to write such a thing at some attention-thirsty website, we certainly wouldn’t want to link to it, leaving our own readers having to figure out where it might be found should they choose to do so.

In this case, it’s worth elevating this argument (which, to be clear, is actually floating out there) to point out one of the myriad ways in which the effort to vaccinate as many adults as possible has become interlaced with partisan politics. As the weeks pass and demand for the vaccine has tapered off, the gap between Democratic and Republican interest in being vaccinated seems to be widening — meaning that the end to the pandemic is likely to move that much further into the future.

Consider, for example, the rate of completed vaccinations by county, according to data compiled by CovidActNow. You can see a slight correlation between how a county voted in 2020 — the horizontal axis — and the density of completed vaccinations, shown on the vertical. There’s a greater density of completed vaccinations on the left side of the graph than on the right.

If we shift to the percentage of the population that’s received even one dose of the vaccine, the effect is much more obvious.

This is a relatively recent development. At the beginning of the month, the density of the population that had received only one dose resulted in a graph that looked much like the current density of completed doses.

If we animate those two graphs, the effect is obvious. In the past few weeks, the density of first doses has increased much faster in more-Democratic counties.

If we group the results of the 2020 presidential contest into 20-point buckets, the pattern is again obvious.

It’s not a new observation that Republicans are less willing to get the vaccine; we’ve reported on it repeatedly. What’s relatively new is how that hesitance is showing up in the actual vaccination data.

A Post-ABC News poll released on Monday showed that this response to the vaccine holds even when considering age groups. We’ve known for a while that older Americans, who are more at risk from the virus, have been more likely to seek the vaccine. But even among seniors, Republicans are significantly more hesitant to receive the vaccine than are Democrats.

This is a particularly dangerous example of partisanship. People 65 or older have made up 14 percent of coronavirus infections, according to federal data, but 81 percent of deaths. That’s among those for whom ages are known, a subset (though a large majority) of overall cases. While about 1.8 percent of that overall group has died, the figure for those aged 65 and over is above 10 percent.

As vaccines have been rolled out across the country, you can see how more-heavily-blue counties have a higher density of vaccinations in many states.

This is not a universal truth, of course. Some heavily Republican counties have above-average vaccination rates. (About 40 percent of counties that preferred former president Donald Trump last year are above the average in the CovidActNow data. The rate among Democratic counties is closer to 80 percent.) But it is the case that there is a correlation between how a county voted and how many of its residents have been vaccinated. It is also the case that the gap between red and blue counties is widening.

Given all of that, it probably makes sense to point out that an argument against vaccines based on nothing more than “lol libs will hate this” is an embarrassing argument to make.

Vaccine Development, Covid-19, and mRNA vaccines

Vaccine Development, Covid-19, and mRNA vaccines | The Incidental Economist

In this last episode of our six-part series on vaccinations, supported by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, we cover vaccine development – particularly in the context of the current global pandemic. We discuss the timeline of Covid-19 vaccine development and the mRNA vaccine approach.

Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus

Katalin Kariko at her home in Jenkintown, Pa., in February. Dr. Kariko’s early research into mRNA eventually led to development of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.Credit.

She grew up in Hungary, daughter of a butcher. She decided she wanted to be a scientist, although she had never met one. She moved to the United States in her 20s, but for decades never found a permanent position, instead clinging to the fringes of academia.

Now Katalin Kariko, 66, known to colleagues as Kati, has emerged as one of the heroes of Covid-19 vaccine development. Her work, with her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, laid the foundation for the stunningly successful vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

For her entire career, Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.

But for many years her career at the University of Pennsylvania was fragile. She migrated from lab to lab, relying on one senior scientist after another to take her in. She never made more than $60,000 a year.

By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and infectious Diseases, knows Dr. Kariko’s work. “She was, in a positive sense, kind of obsessed with the concept of messenger RNA,” he said.

Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

Dr. Kariko’s ideas about mRNA were definitely unorthodox. Increasingly, they also seem to have been prescient.

“It’s going to be transforming,” Dr. Fauci said of mRNA research. “It is already transforming for Covid-19, but also for other vaccines. H.I.V. — people in the field are already excited. Influenza, malaria.”

For Dr. Kariko, most every day was a day in the lab. “You are not going to work — you are going to have fun,” her husband, Bela Francia, manager of an apartment complex, used to tell her as she dashed back to the office on evenings and weekends. He once calculated that her endless workdays meant she was earning about a dollar an hour.

For many scientists, a new discovery is followed by a plan to make money, to form a company and get a patent. But not for Dr. Kariko. “That’s the furthest thing from Kate’s mind,” Dr. Langer said.

She grew up in the small Hungarian town of Kisujszallas. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Szeged and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at its Biological Research Center.

In 1985, when the university’s research program ran out of money, Dr. Kariko, her husband, and 2-year-old daughter, Susan, moved to Philadelphia for a job as a postdoctoral student at Temple University. Because the Hungarian government only allowed them to take $100 out of the country, she and her husband sewed £900 (roughly $1,246 today) into Susan’s teddy bear. (Susan grew up to be a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in rowing.)

When Dr. Kariko started, it was early days in the mRNA field. Even the most basic tasks were difficult, if not impossible. How do you make RNA molecules in a lab? How do you get mRNA into cells of the body?

In 1989, she landed a job with Dr. Elliot Barnathan, then a cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a low-level position, research assistant professor, and never meant to lead to a permanent tenured position. She was supposed to be supported by grant money, but none came in.

She and Dr. Barnathan planned to insert mRNA into cells, inducing them to make new proteins. In one of the first experiments, they hoped to use the strategy to instruct cells to make a protein called the urokinase receptor. If the experiment worked, they would detect the new protein with a radioactive molecule that would be drawn to the receptor.

“Most people laughed at us,” Dr. Barnathan said.

One fateful day, the two scientists hovered over a dot-matrix printer in a narrow room at the end of a long hall. A gamma counter, needed to track the radioactive molecule, was attached to a printer. It began to spew data.

Their detector had found new proteins produced by cells that were never supposed to make them — suggesting that mRNA could be used to direct any cell to make any protein, at will.

“I felt like a god,” Dr. Kariko recalled.

She and Dr. Barnathan were on fire with ideas. Maybe they could use mRNA to improve blood vessels for heart bypass surgery. Perhaps they could even use the procedure to extend the life span of human cells.

Dr. Barnathan, though, soon left the university, accepting a position at a biotech firm, and Dr. Kariko was left without a lab or financial support. She could stay at Penn only if she found another lab to take her on. “They expected I would quit,” she said.

Universities only support low-level Ph.D.s for a limited amount of time, Dr. Langer said: “If they don’t get a grant, they will let them go.” Dr. Kariko “was not a great grant writer,” and at that point “mRNA was more of an idea,” he said.

But Dr. Langer knew Dr. Kariko from his days as a medical resident, when he had worked in Dr. Barnathan’s lab. Dr. Langer urged the head of the neurosurgery department to give Dr. Kariko’s research a chance. “He saved me,” she said.

Dr. Langer thinks it was Dr. Kariko who saved him — from the kind of thinking that dooms so many scientists.

Working with her, he realized that one key to real scientific understanding is to design experiments that always tell you something, even if it is something you don’t want to hear. The crucial data often come from the control, he learned — the part of the experiment that involves a dummy substance for comparison.

“There’s a tendency when scientists are looking at data to try to validate their own idea,” Dr. Langer said. “The best scientists try to prove themselves wrong. Kate’s genius was a willingness to accept failure and keep trying, and her ability to answer questions people were not smart enough to ask.”

Dr. Langer hoped to use mRNA to treat patients who developed blood clots following brain surgery, often resulting in strokes. His idea was to get cells in blood vessels to make nitric oxide, a substance that dilates blood vessels, but has a half-life of milliseconds. Doctors can’t just inject patients with it.

He and Dr. Kariko tried their mRNA on isolated blood vessels used to study strokes. It failed. They trudged through snow in Buffalo, N.Y., to try it in a laboratory with rabbits prone to strokes. Failure again.

And then Dr. Langer left the university, and the department chairman said he was leaving as well. Dr. Kariko again was without a lab and without funds for research.

A meeting at a photocopying machine changed that. Dr. Weissman happened by, and she struck up a conversation. “I said, ‘I am an RNA scientist — I can make anything with mRNA,’” Dr. Kariko recalled.

Dr. Weissman told her he wanted to make a vaccine against H.I.V. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do it,’” Dr. Kariko said.

Despite her bravado, her research on mRNA had stalled. She could make mRNA molecules that instructed cells in petri dishes to make the protein of her choice. But the mRNA did not work in living mice.

“Nobody knew why,” Dr. Weissman said. “All we knew was that the mice got sick. Their fur got ruffled, they hunched up, they stopped eating, they stopped running.”

It turned out that the immune system recognizes invading microbes by detecting their mRNA and responding with inflammation. The scientists’ mRNA injections looked to the immune system like an invasion of pathogens.

But with that answer came another puzzle. Every cell in every person’s body makes mRNA, and the immune system turns a blind eye. “Why is the mRNA I made different?Dr. Kariko wondered.

A control in an experiment finally provided a clue. Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman noticed their mRNA caused an immune overreaction. But the control molecules, another form of RNA in the human body — so-called transfer RNA, or tRNA — did not.

A molecule called pseudouridine in tRNA allowed it to evade the immune response. As it turned out, naturally occurring human mRNA also contains the molecule.

Added to the mRNA made by Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman, the molecule did the same — and also made the mRNA much more powerful, directing the synthesis of 10 times as much protein in each cell.

The idea that adding pseudouridine to mRNA protected it from the body’s immune system was a basic scientific discovery with a wide range of thrilling applications. It meant that mRNA could be used to alter the functions of cells without prompting an immune system attack.

“We both started writing grants,” Dr. Weissman said. “We didn’t get most of them. People were not interested in mRNA. The people who reviewed the grants said mRNA will not be a good therapeutic, so don’t bother.’”

Leading scientific journals rejected their work. When the research finally was published, in Immunity, it got little attention.

Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko then showed they could induce an animal — a monkey — to make a protein they had selected. In this case, they injected monkeys with mRNA for erythropoietin, a protein that stimulates the body to make red blood cells. The animals’ red blood cell counts soared.

The scientists thought the same method could be used to prompt the body to make any protein drug, like insulin or other hormones or some of the new diabetes drugs. Crucially, mRNA also could be used to make vaccines unlike any seen before.

Instead of injecting a piece of a virus into the body, doctors could inject mRNA that would instruct cells to briefly make that part of the virus.

“We talked to pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists. No one cared,” Dr. Weissman said. “We were screaming a lot, but no one would listen.”

Eventually, though, two biotech companies took notice of the work: Moderna, in the United States, and BioNTech, in Germany. Pfizer partnered with BioNTech, and the two now help fund Dr. Weissman’s lab.

Soon clinical trials of an mRNA flu vaccine were underway, and there were efforts to build new vaccines against cytomegalovirus and the Zika virus, among others. Then came the coronavirus.

Researchers had known for 20 years that the crucial feature of any coronavirus is the spike protein sitting on its surface, which allows the virus to inject itself into human cells. It was a fat target for an mRNA vaccine.

Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the virus ravaging Wuhan in January 2020, and researchers everywhere went to work. BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours; Moderna designed its in two days.

The idea for both vaccines was to introduce mRNA into the body that would briefly instruct human cells to produce the coronavirus’s spike protein. The immune system would see the protein, recognize it as alien, and learn to attack the coronavirus if it ever appeared in the body.

The vaccines, though, needed a lipid bubble to encase the mRNA and carry it to the cells that it would enter. The vehicle came quickly, based on 25 years of work by multiple scientists, including Pieter Cullis of the University of British Columbia.

Scientists also needed to isolate the virus’s spike protein from the bounty of genetic data provided by Chinese researchers. Dr. Barney Graham, of the National Institutes of Health, and Jason McClellan, of the University of Texas at Austin, solved that problem in short order.

Testing the quickly designed vaccines required a monumental effort by companies and the National Institutes of Health. But Dr. Kariko had no doubts.

On Nov. 8, the first results of the Pfizer-BioNTech study came in, showing that the mRNA vaccine offered powerful immunity to the new virus. Dr. Kariko turned to her husband. “Oh, it works,” she said. “I thought so.”

To celebrate, she ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.

Dr. Weissman celebrated with his family, ordering takeout dinner from an Italian restaurant, “with wine,” he said. Deep down, he was awed.

“My dream was always that we develop something in the lab that helps people,” Dr. Weissman said. “I’ve satisfied my life’s dream.”

Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman were vaccinated on Dec. 18 at the University of Pennsylvania. Their inoculations turned into a press event, and as the cameras flashed, she began to feel uncharacteristically overwhelmed.

A senior administrator told the doctors and nurses rolling up their sleeves for shots that the scientists whose research made the vaccine possible were present, and they all clapped. Dr. Kariko wept.

Things could have gone so differently, for the scientists and for the world, Dr. Langer said. “There are probably many people like her who failed,” he said.

3 major health items included in Biden’s budget request

President Joe Biden proposed an ambitious budget for the next federal fiscal year that includes more money for fighting the opioid epidemic, bolstering public health and several other healthcare items.

The budget request to Congress, released Friday, acts as essentially a wish list of priorities for the administration for the next year.

It is doubtful how much would get approved by Congress but sends a message of what the administration prioritizes.

Here are three healthcare priorities outlined in the request:

  • The opioid epidemic: $10.7 billion was requested for fighting the opioid epidemic, $3.9 billion over the 2021 enacted level. The money will help support research, prevention and recovery services. The administration also is calling for targeted investments for “populations with unique needs, including Native Americans, older Americans and rural populations,” according to a release from the Office of Management and Budget on Friday.
     
  • Public health infrastructure: $8.7 billion was requested for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to boost public health capacity in states and territories. OMB calls the budget increase the largest in nearly two decades for the agency at the frontlines of combating COVID-19. The Biden administration hopes to use the new money to train new epidemiologists and public health experts and “build international capacity to detect, prepare for and respond to emerging global threats.” A letter sent Friday to congressional leaders from the White House said that CDC funding was 10% lower than the previous decade after adjusting for inflation.
     
  • Research funding boosts: $6.5 billion to launch a new agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. The new agency would provide major increases in federal research and development spending on cancer and other diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The goal of the investment is to “drive transformational innovation in health research and speed application and implementation of health breakthroughs,” OMB’s letter to Congress said. The funding is rolled into a $51 billion request for funding to the National Institutes of Health.

How basic research leads to future job growth

https://www.axios.com/basic-science-research-fuels-job-growth-fcf7723b-b701-4ed2-8b2b-699d28dd1fbd.html

Illustration of a hand in a medical glove holding a beaker full of liquid

A new report out later today concludes that basic scientific research plays an essential role in creating companies that later produce thousands of jobs and billions in economic value.

Why it mattersThe report uses the pandemic — and especially the rapid development of new mRNA vaccines — to show how basic research funding from the government lays the necessary groundwork for economically valuable companies down the road.

By the numbers: The Science Coalition — a nonprofit group that represents 50 of the nation’s top private and public research universities — identified 53 companies that have spun off from federally funded university research.

  • Those companies — which range from pharmaceutical startups to agriculture firms — have contributed more than $1.3 billion to U.S. GDP between 2015 and 2019, while supporting the creation of more than 100,000 jobs.

What they’re saying: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the need for the federal government to continue investing in fundamental research is far from theoretical,” says John Latini, president of the Science Coalition. “Consistent, sustained, robust federal funding is how science evolves.”

DetailsLatini praised the Biden administration’s first budget proposal to Congress, released last week, which includes what would be a $9 billion funding boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the country’s single biggest science research funding agency.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would see its budget rise to a record high of $6.9 billion, including $800 million reserved for climate research.

The catch: The Biden budget proposal is just that, and it will ultimately be up to Congress to decide how much to allocate to research agencies.

Context: Government research funding is vital because private money tends to go to applied research. But without basic research — the lifeblood of science — the U.S. risks missing out on potentially world-changing innovations in the future.

  • The long-term value of that funding can be seen in the story of Katalin Kariko, an obscure biomedical researcher who labored for years on mRNA with little reward — until the pandemic, when her work helped provide the foundation for mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

The bottom line: Because its ultimate payoff might lay years in the future, it’s easy to see basic research funding as a waste — until the day comes when we need it.