MRNA technology is proven in the pandemic now leaders must deliver the shots

On the anniversary of the first UK vaccination, pioneering virologist Dr Barney Graham reflects on how far we've come

Syringes filled with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine are seen at a mobile vaccination center in Hemmingen, Ludwigsburg, in southern Germany. AFP
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It has been an exhausting two years for the man who led the discovery behind the rapid development of many of today’s Covid-19 vaccines.

Dr Barney Graham and his team at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Centre in Maryland, US, were working on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, known as Mers, when they invented a method for manipulating the amino acids in the spike protein of not only that coronavirus but any coronavirus.

The breakthrough in molecular engineering enabled their partners at the American biotech company Moderna to roll out an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine candidate at colossal speed, while also informing the science on which companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech, CureVac, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax rely.

On Wednesday, the first anniversary of the day that Margaret Keenan, then 90, became the first person in the UK outside clinical trials to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Dr Graham said he was proud of the contribution.

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The currently available technologies will lead to unimaginable breakthroughs in biology and medicine over the next 20 years

“The achievement was based on many years of work leading up to this moment when everything was in place to act quickly,” he told The National.

“I think that with money and the right environment in which scientists can work in multi-disciplinary settings, the currently available technologies will lead to unimaginable breakthroughs in biology and medicine over the next 20 years.”

BETHESDA, MD - FEB. 26

Dr. Barney Graham in the lab at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center on the campus of National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Getty Images

Though gratified that the vaccine approach was working well, Dr Graham said it was hard to celebrate with more than five million deaths globally from SARS-CoV-2, recurrent surges of infection, around 30 per cent of people refusing the help available “because of active misinformation”, and an African continent where fewer than 10 per cent had been vaccinated.

“We have an effective strategy for coronavirus vaccines, evidence that neutralising therapeutic monoclonal antibodies can prevent disease progression, anti-viral drugs, and diagnostics,” he said.

“What we still don't know how to do is immunise the world in three months instead of three years so the emergence of new variants is inevitable.”

Dr Graham’s comments come in the week that Dame Sarah Gilbert, the British vaccinologist and co-creator of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed concerns that the advances made must not be lost through a lack of funding for future pandemic preparedness.

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What we still don't know how to do is immunise the world in three months instead of three years so the emergence of new variants is inevitable

Dame Sarah said during the annual BBC Richard Dimbleby lecture on December 6 that the experts who had responded rapidly and worked relentlessly since the outbreak began must not now be asked “to fade back into patient and underfunded obscurity”.

“I don’t think what we’ve learned can be taken away from us,” Dr Graham said in response, “but I agree with the concern that if we don’t follow through and complete the task of full pandemic preparedness then we won’t be in a position to act so quickly next time around.”

Dr Graham's three goals

Short term

Establish logistics and systems needed to globally deploy vaccines


Intermediate term

Build biomedical workforces in low- and middle-income nations


Long term

A prototype pathogen approach for pandemic preparedness  

He hoped the trauma of living through the pandemic would be enough to convince people that the world had the tools and capacity to be better prepared in the future, and the obligation to "get it done".

“Because the pandemic pain cut across so many aspects of life and society, including economically, I believe we will see a different level of commitment by our political and business leaders in addition to scientists.

“After the 1918 pandemic recovery, there was a renaissance of sorts in terms of reforming medical education, studies that led to the discovery of DNA, philanthropic efforts,” Dr Graham said, specifically highlighting the Rockefeller Foundation and East Africa, “to improve global health and surveillance, etc. Maybe we will see the same thing here.”

Having now left the NIH after more than 20 years, Dr Graham plans to provide education initiatives to address vaccine hesitancy by “improving biology literacy, and identifying better ways of communicating true information and distinguishing it from misinformation”.

Building trust with the community could only be done by a long-term commitment to engagement and transparency but not amid a crisis, he said.

Looking back over his career, the 68-year-old eminent virologist, immunologist and clinical trials physician reflected that he had been privileged to receive support during several decades of scientific inquiry, and had worked with amazing and dedicated colleagues.

He was trying to determine the most productive way of discharging the obligation he felt to continue to share the knowledge accumulated along the way.

“I retired from government a few months ago,” Dr Graham said, “but it’s more of a 'repositioning' because I’m still involved with multiple groups, staying busy, and feeling like I can’t relax until this thing is over.”

Updated: December 08, 2021, 7:05 PM
Dr Graham's three goals

Short term

Establish logistics and systems needed to globally deploy vaccines


Intermediate term

Build biomedical workforces in low- and middle-income nations


Long term

A prototype pathogen approach for pandemic preparedness  

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