IRVINE, Calif. — When the coronavirus spread around the world, the world knew what scientists had figured out for years: a pandemic would one day take over the world.
Animals in close proximity to humans and air travel meant a virus could quickly circle the globe. Finally, in March 2020, it’s done.
The University of California, Irvine on Friday celebrated a select group of scientists who helped stop the spread and were part of an accelerated clinical process that began nearly 60 years ago.
“It’s a day to celebrate but also a day to celebrate our gratitude,” said Douglas Freeman, co-founder and executive director of the Celebration of Heroes in Conversation panel.
The event brought together a series of accomplished veterans of vaccine research and other topics critical to vaccine deployment.
The panel included Philip Felgner, an administrator wearing many hats including that of director of the UCI’s Center for Vaccine Research and Development. And Drew Weissman, professor of medicine and director of infectious disease vaccine research, was also present.
The panel explained how mRNA research got started, why it helped speed up the vaccine process and what it could mean for the future.
“We know a lot about coronaviruses. They have been studied for 40 years,” Weissman said. “But there is still a lot we don’t know about clinical disease. We are learning. Clinicians are studying and we will have the answers.
The bigger question, in some ways, has already been answered. Presidents have, for years, tried to build a response to the pandemic, funneling resources into an apparatus that never materialized.
The panel on Friday discussed how this device developed and the growth of a collaborative effort between academics from many disciplines and corporate scientists. They all came together to produce vaccines for the public and establish a pipeline for future drugs.
Weissman said the pandemic was proof of concept for mRNA, which is essentially a more efficient delivery system for vaccines. The pandemic has forced a commitment of resources and production that is not going away. As new strains loom, Weissman expects new products to arrive in 10 months if needed.
The pandemic has also spawned many other vaccine advances, catapulting early trials for HIV and other drugs. The pandemic has been an effective road test for the technology. Now, Weissman expects new vaccines using mRNA to hit the market on a regular basis.
The public may also need new coronavirus drugs. Case rates have jumped in some parts of the country, and the omicron BA.2 variant appears to be spreading faster than early versions.
The country is no longer as ill-prepared as it used to be, benefiting from an experienced manufacturing industry and advanced and tested technologies that can protect the population against the disease.
But Friday was more about celebrating than anticipating the dangers that might lie in wait. Freeman pointed to scientists, technicians who fell ill when the airborne virus was still new and barely understood, and frontline healthcare workers and service industry professionals.
“Science and scientists have created an incredible miracle,” Freeman said.