Published April 2, 2021
Internationally recognized vaccine researcher John R. Mascola described the past year as “a remarkable year of progress” during his “COVID-19 Vaccines: Past, Present and Future” keynote address at the UB Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s (CTSI) Annual Forum on March 17.
Mascola, director of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, is co-author on many of the publications on the groundbreaking Moderna mRNA vaccine. His address at the CTSI forum focused on what enabled the rapid vaccine response, Phase III efficacy trial findings and pandemic preparedness that will be necessary in the future.
As he reflected on the COVID-19 trajectory, Mascola noted that we can expect another viral pandemic in the future. To effectively prepare, he said, “we need to exploit modern-day technologies,” pointing to structure-based vaccine design — the study of viral surface proteins (like the spike protein) in atomic level detail — that allowed for a rapid COVID-19 vaccine response.
“We need to preemptively have scientific information about each viral pathogen,” he added. “None of this derives from just the luck of throwing together an antigen.”
On a larger scale, Mascola called for an investment in the “infrastructure for global surveillance to expedite pathogen identification to be able to respond much faster.”
During the one-hour presentation and question-and-answer session, Mascola told the COVID story from his unique perspective, outlined the development of vaccines, and then looked ahead. Important elements in the rapid vaccine response, he explained, were the many years of research on diseases such as SARS and MERS, as well as the collaborative efforts of vaccine manufacturers and the U.S. government.
“We were fortunate that this pandemic was caused by a viral family for which we have detailed knowledge and some vaccine preparation,” he said. “[The major companies involved in vaccine development] surveyed the literature, did their own testing, and confirmed that [the vaccines] worked. So, it’s a really nice story of scientific discovery that was published, and allowed the private sector of biotech to take advantage of it and make vaccines.”
Mascola noted that the latest data (as of March 17) showed 72 million Americans had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. In addition, 40 million Americans are fully vaccinated, which, Mascola said, “is really great news for the pandemic ahead, although of course, it can never be fast enough.”
Another positive is that hospitalizations are nearing what he called “a low point, although 40,000 is still a lot of hospitalizations. But I think we will see this decline. While most of the population is not vaccinated, many of the most vulnerable are.”
This is especially welcome news due to the presence of variants of concern. Mascola explained that mutations always occur. But a variant of concern means increased transmissibility, pathogenicity, mortality and/or evasion of immunity.
“In some cases we are seeing all of those, which is clearly concerning,” Mascola said. He noted that variants are gaining prevalence the U.S. — nearing 25% — which merits close attention and discussion as the current vaccines evolve and new vaccines are tested.
At the close of his presentation, Mascola credited his colleagues at the Vaccine Research Center, the Food and Drug Administration, NIH, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and Department of Defense for their efforts in the past year-plus in the fight against COVID-19.
“To have a highly effective, FDA-authorized vaccine within a year for a new human pathogen really is a testament to the power of science and translational medicine,” Mascola said.