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291: A Shot to Save the World: The Story Behind the Covid Vaccine!

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Buck: Welcome back to the show everyone. Today my guest on Wealth Formula Podcast is Gregory Zuckerman. Greg is a special writer at The Wall Street Journal, where he writes about business, economic and investment topics. He’s a three time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, the highest honor in business journalism. He regularly appears on such media outlets as CNBC, Fox, MSNBC, and is the author of The Greatest Trade Ever, The Frackers and The Man Who Solved The Market. The latest book is what we’re going to talk about today, which is A Shot To Save The World: The inside story of the life or death race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Greg, thank you very much for joining the show. 

Greg: Oh, great to be here. 

Buck: So obviously, this is a fascinating topic, I think in general, for everybody. And especially since we have so many people in the health field focused on this show already. I guess the question is, first of all, why did you write this book, Greg? What inspired this? 

Greg: Oh, to me, this is the greatest scientific achievement of modern times. It’s the greatest achievement of modern finance as well. We’ve created vaccines in well under a year. We’ve never done anything close to that. Historically, the average is ten years for an effective vaccine. And until last year, four years was the record. 

Buck: Yeah. So it’s obviously an incredible success story. But let’s talk about who were the players. And if you were telling this as a story as a dramatic story of people coming together, like who were the players involved? And what were some of the main issues that came up and maybe start with the point at which those people started to convene together? 

Greg: Well, my book is a dramatic story. It’s about the evolution of two different, it’s really three, but two in particular, two primary vaccine approaches that have changed the world that have saved us that protected us during this pandemic as modern day plague and that’s mRNA and virus. Those are two different approaches that Skeptics said would never work. And people were discouraged from working on and mRNA, as your audience I’m sure knows, is a molecule. We all have it in our bodies. It transports instructions from the DNA to the part of the cell where proteins are created. And it’s always been sort of the dream of scientists to create mRNA in the lab and to use it for vaccines for drugs. It can send instructions. If you can tell the body to make any kind of protein, you make the body into a vaccine factory or drug factory. The possibilities are endless, but it’s always been the kind of thing where people said, yeah, don’t waste your time in mRNA. It’s unstable. It gets chopped up so quickly it can’t really make its way into the body, everyone said to the cells. And yet people persisted. So I write about different characters. There’s a gentleman named John Wolfe, scientist who was working in Wisconsin University of Wisconsin in the late 80s, working with children with genetic abnormalities. And he was the first one to really work on with his colleagues and mRNA to show that there’s a possibility of creating a protein. And yet people ignored him and were skeptical. And it was almost like a relay race where some scientists made progress, breakthroughs, innovative work. And yet they stumbled and fell and head into the baton to somebody else so it got to the point where people were ignoring it and dismissing the possibilities of mRNA. But there’s a company in Boston and an executive in particular named Stéphane Bancel who believes. And a lot of my book is about how they figured it out and how they ended up finding a vaccine to save many of us. 

Buck: So let’s talk a little bit about the mRNA, the background on the mRNA vaccine, as many physicians and all of us who went to medical school or even really, frankly, you’re talking about people in biology and you go through the process of protein synthesis and all that you recognize mRNA is a step right before protein production in the body. Where was this science before vaccines? Because this didn’t come out of nowhere. This was something that was already in somebody’s mind about doing. So what was mRNA being used for in the labs at that point? Where were the studies focused? 

Greg: Well, for years again, people wanted to use mRNA. As you know, your audience knows, many of them the basics Biology 101 DNA and mRNA to proteins. So people did use, especially this company majority. They were called Major Therapeutics, and the idea was to create drugs with mRNAs

Buck: But they weren’t thinking about the virus. They weren’t thinking necessarily right away. I don’t know the story exactly. But as I recall remembering that the Moderna Therapeutics idea wasn’t predicated entirely on vaccinations. The idea was broader than that. And I don’t know if it was necessarily thought of as a vaccination. 

Greg: Yeah, that’s what my book is about. It’s about how, again, they started off as Moderna Therapeutics. The idea being it was going to be for drugs, and they spent years on it and they could not make it work. And there’s a lot of drama there. There’s a lot of frustration. There are people giving up within Modern. Then a young scientist named Eric Wong said, Well, guys, it’s not working for drugs, partly because it’s so unstable, it doesn’t last long. Yeah. You can get the mRNA into the cell and you can create a protein, but it doesn’t last. And then the mRNA gets chopped up. But he made a smart conclusion. Well, maybe for a vaccine, it’s actually going to be more effective. You don’t need a vaccine. You don’t want vaccine to stick around. That’s the whole point. So then they shifted gears, as did this company in BioNTech in Germany, and they made progress and mRNA for vaccines. They were working on cancer vaccines, though, so they were doing a different part of the world, and they’re working on vaccines for cancer, and they never made any progress with that. But they had developed the expertise in mRNA such that when the coronavirus arose in late 2019, early 2020, they shifted and pivoted and focused on a vaccine for this new virus. 

Buck: So one of the I guess the winners in this race ultimately was a company called Moderna, which we know, it’s a company, that it was a fledgling business. Right. And talk a little bit about Moderna in particular, how it was running out of money. And how did they end up coming out on top, so to speak?

Greg: So at the beginning of 2020, Moderna was a company that people were very suspicious of especially the CEO. He’s not a scientist, he’s a Harvard MBA, he’s an engineer. And for years, he raised tens of billions of dollars for this company without any proof of making any progress. They struck out with drugs, they said they were going to make progress with vaccines, people were very skeptical, the stock was down. They started to get real suspicious about them because he reminds people a little bit of Elizabeth Holmes and you know what people think of Elizabeth Holmes. And he’s very persuasive, he’s a great salesman, but he’s also a little bit secretive and in defense, they said they have to be secretive because they don’t want competitors to hear what progress we’re making but that drew a lot of suspicions on Moderna going into 2020 and yet they internally, they were making progress, some way to test their expertise in mRNA and vaccines and they got one. In early 2020 they said we think there’s going to be a pandemic. We think we’ve got expertise and the ability to create a vaccine and let’s say we can do it.

Buck: So how did the financial problems, given the fact that the guy already had some image issues, how did they solve those problems? 

Greg: Well, it was a real problem. And frankly, I don’t think we’re appreciative enough of how it could have gone very differently. This story, had the virus arose, emerged in 2017, 2018. We weren’t ready. And Moderna almost struck out, meaning they developed a vaccine in the first few months of 2020. They tested it in phase one. It looked good. They were convinced it would be effective, but they didn’t have enough money. They were a relatively small company. They didn’t have enough money to manufacture the vaccines. And they went everywhere. They went to Merck, they tried to work with Merck. Merck didn’t want to work with them. They went to the US government. At that point, US government was not ready to give them any money. They went to the Gates Foundation. They were striking out left and right and within the offices, they were pretty despondent. They were very down discouraged. And then they ended up going to Wall Street and Wall Street was eager to write a big check. They believe. So investors get some credit there. Morgan Stanley wrote a check for over a billion dollars to Moderna, and they took that money and they started making those vaccines so it could have very easily gone another way where Moderna would have taken much longer to create the vaccines and would have been at stake. 

Buck: What do you think at that point, to your point about it being 2017/18? I think the idea is like, even though this guy had an image problem, it was worth taking a shot on him or what? Because I’m curious about that change. That Elizabeth Holmes image. How does that guy raise money? 

Greg: Yeah, well, part of it was those early phase ones. And frankly, the world of science was slow coming around to mRNA. Very skeptical. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t want to work with mRNA. It’s unstable. It doesn’t last long. People have been burned, wasting time and effort and money working with them or any over the years. And to Ben Sells credit, he and his scientists persisted. And he was a difficult guy. He pushed his people really hard. I write about it in my book, A Shot to Save the World. They were collapsing in the office. They were hitting their heads at home, collapsing. I’m trying to keep up with him. He was a hard driving, really inspirational guy, but also very difficult to work for in some ways. And they kept working on it. So they convinced the answer is they convinced investors and investors there were enough investors who believed and they made a fortune as a result.

Buck: I’m going to take a step back real quick in the sense that like, okay, so now there’s also, of course, the J&J adenovirus, the more traditional virus. Were the other players involved in this race that didn’t make it. I mean, obviously we hear about Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer, but the other players were there other players who. I’m just curious why, in this particular situation, we went the mRNA route. Was it just because is it faster, technically, to get that more productive? I mean, can you talk about the technical elements that provided advantages for mRNA versus the adenovirus? 

Greg: Sure. So to answer your question, there were other approaches that we haven’t seen yet. They haven’t succeeded yet. Using more traditional conventional methods using attenuated virus or killed virus. There are 19 vaccines in the works using those traditional approaches. But as you say, they’re much slower, whereas mRNA, you just need the sequence. You can move quickly. And that’s one reason Tony Falcone, NIH, they backed the mRNA approach years ago. So to answer your question, mRNA is much faster. But the real question is, why weren’t the vaccine giants involved like Merck? I mean, Merck is the vaccine heavyweight. They produce MMR vaccines. We all know Measles, Mumps, Rubella, GSK, Sanofi. Those are the vaccine giants. And yet they’re not in the race. Or at least they’ve been trailing. And part of the reason is people like Merck, they thought about chasing a vaccine and put a little work into it. But there was a split. I write about it in the book. There was an internal split within Merck, and some people said, hey, this virus is going to dissipate. A lot of people had wasted time and money chasing a SARS one. The first SARS vaccine, a vaccine from Mers Zika. You can go on and on. People have been burned, creating vaccines to the point where Merck and some others said, you know what? Let’s wait to see. Let’s not go all out. They tried a little bit and it just didn’t really work out. It’s also the case that GSK and Santa fed on a different approach. That protein subunit approach, which isn’t a bad approach. I think there’s going to be a good vaccine coming from them and from a company called Novax, which will be very effective. But we don’t really need at this point, probably elsewhere in the world. We will. But the last point is, it’s important to remember that vaccines are not a sexy business, or at least they never were right. Historically, big Pharma companies didn’t really want to be in vaccine business. It takes a while. It’s often as a waste of time and money, and you’d rather be in the drug business a statin. You get a give every day and vaccine every once in a while. So those are all the reasons I would argue why upstarts that have saved our lives. And with this in COVID, we’re talking Moderna. We’re talking BioNTech, Novavax company. It’s not the usual suspects. 

Buck: So we’re in a very unusual time, obviously, where there was also a really unprecedented public private plan called the Operation Warp Speed. How did that all work? How did that all help and get this done? 

Greg: So Operation Warp Speed was very helpful. It arose in terms of late spring, early summer of 2020, and it helped in regard to writing big checks. It wasn’t perfect. Their first bet was on the Oxford AstraZeneca approach. And while that vaccine is effective and it’s being used in Europe and around the world, and it’s cheap and doesn’t have to be kept in cold storage, it’s not as effective as the mRNA approaches or the J and J. So we don’t need it here in the United States. And even though again, we bought, we gave them a big check. That was the first money that came from operational warps speed. We didn’t need that. But they basically bet on three approaches, mRNA Adenovirus and the Chinese subunit and six companies, two in each. And it was like a portfolio approach. And it was smart on the part of operational speed. They figured they’d get some home runs and some strikeouts, and that’s exactly what happened. And they gave money. And they also gave resources. They helped in terms of supplies, getting the pieces that were needed for manufacturing. Sometimes. Remember, it was a difficult time in the summer of 2020 transporting things. So they helped in that regard as well. 

Buck: Pfizer actually didn’t take money, right. And I’m curious what’s the story behind that?

Greg: They did and they didn’t. They did not take money from operation warp speed to develop their vaccine, which didn’t really develop with BioNTech, but they worked with them and they tested it, etc. But they did take money in terms of selling their vaccine ahead of time, which was helpful having those billions. And they did that. It was smart on their part. They didn’t need the money, and they thought that the bureaucracy and working with the government would slow them down. And frankly, as I write my book, it did slow Madrid down a little bit. So it helps. At one point, Moderna was in the lead and FISA and BioNTech passed them in the race for a Covid 19 vaccine. I write my book partly because the government slowed Madrid down a little bit. 

Buck: Yeah so it wasn’t because they felt like they would be controlled by the government money per se. 

Greg: There was concern about that. They wanted to be independent. 

Buck: There’s another issue I know that you talk a little bit about, which is the Moderna and the NIH now fighting over this patent. What’s going on there? Maybe you can explain that a little bit. 

Greg: Complicated science, as your audience will know, it’s not clear cut. Often there aren’t Eureka moments that one person, one person has in a lab kind of thing. So there are a lot of contributors to this vaccine and this approach. So basically, what are the two elements to this dispute? When the virus arose in early 2020, there was a sequence that was available. You take that sequence, you create the mRNA molecule, and specifically, what you’re focused on is the spike protein. And you want to stabilize the spike protein. And there’s some scientists. And there’s some science from years ago, like in 2016, 2017, that was responsible for the innovation. There’s a way to insert these two proteins that stabilize the spike protein. And that was created in part by the NIH, in part by academics. And it’s not clear who gets credit. And then there’s also this issue of in early 2020 to work. And NIH said they sent the sequence to Moderna, and they said, here we go, let’s do the vaccine. And Moderna says, and I kind of believe them. Well, we were doing that work anyway, so, yes, thank you for sending it to us. But we already had done that work. So then who gets the credit? Who gets the patent? It’s subject to dispute. I mean, I’d like to think they could all share. I mean, they all worked on it. And for years, Moderna worked with NIH, so for them to be fighting about it now. And Moderna is making a fortune. So I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to share it, but I understand why Moderna is a little bit resistant. They say, hey, we did the bulk of this work here. 

Buck: Yeah. When you look back at the story and obviously aptly described it as an American success story, you talk about when you look back at that, what do you think for the next potential pandemic? What lessons can we take away and maybe learn from history and apply to the next crisis if we have one? 

Greg: Well, one is how smooth it was, the working relationship between private and public sectors. Never before have we been able to do all these things simultaneously to phase one, two, phase threes. We didn’t cut corners anywhere in that regard, but we simultaneously we developed the vaccines while we were manufacturing them and testing them. I mean, that’s never before been done. And it was never before been done because it’s too expensive. Why would you start manufacturing a vaccine before it’s approved or even authorized. And yet they did at this time, and we did it because we had the money for it. So, again, operation warp speed wrote these big checks and allowed companies to start manufacturing well before they were authorized. Can we do that in the future? We can. We have to have the willpower and the resources to do that. So that’s one key lesson, obviously, another key lesson is to trust the science, something we’re still learning. Sadly, in this country, too often we’ve been skeptical. Everybody is trusting their brother in law as opposed to their physician. So it’s saddened the researchers I talked to who work on these vaccines, but that’s a huge lesson that we’ve yet to learn.

Buck: Right. The book is A Shot To Save The World: the inside story of the life or death race for a Covid 19 vaccine. You can find this book everywhere. Obviously, it’s doing very well. And, Greg, thank you very much for being on Wealth Formula Podcast today. 

Greg: Great to be here. Thanks for invitation. 

Buck: We’ll be right back.