Drew Weissman, MD, PhD: The other big problem is that it was used in multiple cancer clinical trials, but they all failed. So I think biotech and pharmaceutical companies thought the stuff was hard to work with, and they weren’t interested in it.
TV: If SARS-CoV-2 mutates to the point where it’s able to evade the existing COVID-19 vaccine protection, what would the process of creating a new COVID-19 mRNA vaccine involve?
KK: As each new variant emerges, a clinical trial on a vaccine targeting it has started right away. But you didn’t hear about them because they didn’t get past phase 1, because these new vaccine candidates weren’t more potent than the original COVID-19 vaccine when it’s used one or two or three times.
DW: [BioNTech CEO] Uğur Şahin said last year that it would take them six weeks to change the vaccine and have it in people’s arms, so the process can now be incredibly fast. Every year we make a new flu vaccine, but we have to guess at what the strain will be six to seven months beforehand, because that’s how long it takes to make an egg vaccine. Now with RNA, we can do that six weeks ahead of making it. My issue is that I don’t think making new variant vaccines is the right approach. We’re working on pan-coronavirus vaccines that I think will be a lot better.
TV: How would pan-coronavirus vaccines work?
DW: It would involve finding a common target across all of the COVID-19 variants or all the bat coronaviruses, and making a vaccine that induces a response to those targets so that it’s protective against all variants or bat coronaviruses.
TV: In 2020, as the COVID vaccines were being developed, there was this optimism and expectation that the pandemic would soon end. But, for a variety of reasons that hasn’t happened. So, at this point, how does the pandemic end?
DW: COVID is turning into an endemic disease — we’ll never be rid of it. In the United States, 75% of people have two immunizations; 30% of people have three. In Africa, 25% of people are vaccinated. Germany is similar to the U.S. Other countries are much better. But if you wanted to get rid of COVID quickly, you would have needed to vaccinate 90% of the world — and that didn’t happen. And it’s never going to happen. So it’s now an endemic disease. Hopefully, it’ll be like the flu, where every winter we have some COVID and we have some flu, we get vaccinated, and it’s not too bad.
KK: Some people say, ‘Oh, your vaccine is not working because look at the disease here.’ But two years ago, when you heard that somebody got infected — when we had no vaccine — you started to worry that they might die. And today, it’s: “So, you tested positive? I did, too. And you’ve got a headache? I’m coughing.” That’s what it is. So the vaccine is still working.