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Three good news stories from the pandemic

Almost lost amidst the unfortunate uproar over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate are three fascinating and inspiring true stories:

1. The story of the extraordinary development of the COVID-19 vaccine itself: from the painstaking research which established its scientific validity, its efficacy (greater than 90% protection against hospitalization or death) and its safety (less than 0.01% serious side effects); to the technologic marvel of its mass production and the logistics of its ongoing worldwide distribution.

2. The heartwarming and inspiring personal story of the scientist, Katalin Kariko, whose diligence and resilience over 30 years produced the foundational basic research which resulted in the mRNA vaccine, one of the most significant medical accomplishments of our time;

3. The untold stories of the many dedicated caregivers in our own community (and across the world) who have risked their lives to provide exceptional and compassionate care for anyone afflicted by this terrible illness.

Like most medical breakthroughs of the last half-century, the science of the COVID-19 vaccine had its roots in basic research, especially the discovery of the biochemical structure and function of DNA and RNA (1950s). Also like many past triumphs of medical science, the COVID-19 vaccine was forged in the crucible of a worldwide medical crisis, the continuing pandemic of 2019-2022.

Although most recent medical progress has been the product of large teams of scientists, the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine resulted largely through the brilliance, perseverance and courage of one remarkably dedicated scientist, Dr. Katalin Kariko. Her life story (for details, see the Oct. 1, 2021 Washington Post interview by Carolyn Johnson) is the stuff of legends.

Her life began in a rural village in Hungary, the daughter of a butcher and a bookkeeper. Educated in public schools, she earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. After enduring decades of anonymity in Hungary, she moved to the U.S. in 1989 with her husband and small daughter, their life savings sewn inside her daughter’s teddy bear.

Over the next 20 years, Kariko, collaborating with her research colleague Drew Weissman, gradually developed the concept that became the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. In 2013, finding little interest for her work in the U.S., she attached her innovative discovery to Bio-N-Tech, a small startup biotech company in Germany. When the COVID pandemic devastated the world in 2020, Kariko and Bio-N-Tech were poised to rapidly implement her decades of research. Their work, a paradigm shift, became the basis for two of the three major vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) which subsequently became the world’s most potent weapons against the COVID-19 virus.

The rapidity and care with which the vaccine was evaluated, approved, manufactured and distributed is itself historic. Thanks to Kariko’s 30 years of groundwork, as well as the accelerated (yet exceedingly rigorous) approval process by the CDC, the ingenuity of the pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna and the financial backing of the U.S. government, the COVID-19 vaccine journey from lab to worldwide distribution took less than one year. Subsequent in-depth international studies confirmed both the unprecedented efficacy and the remarkable safety of the vaccine.

The potential future applications of Karoki’s mRNA technology are both numerous and promising. Currently there are more than 20 lines of active investigation using this technology, ranging from the prevention of other infectious diseases (such as Ebola and HIV) to possible cures for cancer and congestive heart failure.

The third story is equally noteworthy and most meaningful. It is the inspiring account of the self-sacrifice, bravery, courage and stamina of our health care workers. For two years they have daily braved the personal threat of terrible illness to provide excellent and compassionate care for all COVID patients, without regard to ideology or vaccine status. It is these caregivers who are the real heroes of our troubled time.

William Falk, editor of The Week magazine, last year wrote:

“The value of feats like this are not just scientific. They remind us that human beings are not always petty, small and mean; and that, at our collaborative best, Homo sapiens is capable of magnificent things!”

So, let us now take a moment to celebrate not only one of history’s foremost medical and humanitarian achievements (the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine), the brilliant scientist (Katalin Kariko) whose lifelong work made that possible, and especially, those caregivers in our midst who have served us all so well. To each of these, we owe our deepest gratitude.

John Forsyth, M.D., Ruth Rabinovitch, M.D. and Thomas Treger, M.D. are retired Medford physicians.