The cover story: The vaccine revolution

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The Cover Story
mRNA Technology Gave Us the First COVID-19 Vaccines. It Could Also Upend the Drug Industry
By Walter Isaacson

"No!" The doctor snapped. "Look at me!"

I had been staring her in the eyes, as she had ordered, but when a doctor on my other side began jabbing me with a needle, I started to turn my head. "Don't look at it," the first doctor said. I obeyed.

This was in early August in New Orleans, where I had signed up to be a participant in the clinical trial for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. It was a blind study, which meant I was not supposed to know whether I had gotten the placebo or the real vaccine. I asked the doctor if I would really been able to tell by looking at the syringe. "Probably not," she answered, "but we want to be careful. This is very important to get right."

I became a vaccine guinea pig because, in addition to wanting to be useful, I had a deep interest in the wondrous new roles now being played by RNA, the genetic material that is at the heart of new types of vaccines, cancer treatments and gene-editing tools.

I was writing a book on the Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who developed a gene-editing tool that is being used to help fight viruses like COVID-19. As part of my research I spoke to some of the key scientists who used mRNA technology to develop COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Thanks to their efforts, highly effective vaccines are being rolled out across the world.

But the COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 1.8 million people in 2020 will not be the final plague. With the new mRNA technology, our defenses against most future plagues (and other diseases like cancer) are likely to be faster and more effective.

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