Today’s vaccines were forged from science’s successes, but also from its failures. For decades, researchers have struggled to design a workable vaccine for HIV, and many observers considered this field a dead end. But a new paper argues that these repeated failures forced HIV-vaccine researchers to spend a lot of time and money on strange and unproven vaccine techniques—such as synthetic mRNA and the viral-vector technology that powers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 vaccines that made it to clinical trials used technology that “could be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials,” Jeffrey E. Harris, the economist at MIT who authored the paper, wrote. He points out that if one HIV vaccine had succeeded, the company behind it would have won big. Instead, all of the competitors in the vaccine field learned from collective failure and contributed to collective wisdom. The many false starts of HIV vaccination sired an explosion of new technologies and helped usher in a possible new golden age of vaccines.
4. The Tree of Progress
We can call our record-breaking vaccine-development process good luck. Or we can call it what it really is: a ringing endorsement for the essential role of science in the world.
“Five years ago, we were in a state of ignorance about mRNA,” Mascola, of the NIH, told me. “And five years from now, we will learn that we are, at this very moment, in another state of ignorance. That’s why mRNA is such a beautiful scientific story. So many researchers, philanthropists, government organizations, and companies took a huge risk on a technology whose initial responses were marginal. And together, they figured out how to make it work.”
As a parable of scientific progress, I sometimes imagine the life cycle of a tree. Basic scientific research plants a variety of seeds. Some of these seeds fail entirely; the research goes nowhere. Some seeds become tiny shrubs; the research doesn’t fail entirely, but it produces little of value. And some seeds blossom into towering trees with abundant fruit that scientists, companies, and technologists pluck and turn into the products that change our lives. For years, mRNA technology looked like a shrub. In 2020, it blossomed in full view.
You cannot know in the early stages whether you’re planting a dud or a revolution. Even if it is a revolution, you cannot know what kind. Pfizer jumped into mRNA research for its potential to work against influenza, only to make history fighting a completely different virus. But this uncertainty risk is exactly why countries like the U.S. ought to encourage more basic science and highly novel research.
The triumph of mRNA, from backwater research to breakthrough technology, is not a hero’s journey, but a heroes’ journey. Without Katalin Karikó’s grueling efforts to make mRNA technology work, the world would have no Moderna or BioNTech. Without government funding and philanthropy, both companies might have gone bankrupt before their 2020 vaccines. Without the failures in HIV-vaccine research forcing scientists to trailblaze in strange new fields, we might still be in the dark about how to make the technology work. Without an international team of scientists unlocking the secrets of the coronavirus’s spike protein several years ago, we might not have known enough about this pathogen to design a vaccine to defeat it last year. mRNA technology was born of many seeds.