It took Moderna 48 hours to produce a vaccination.  It took 48 years to accomplish that feat. 

Understanding the science behind the rapid production of the COVID-19 vaccinations is both fascinating and critically important to understand.  Recognizing the role of women in facilitating this scientific breakthrough is vital.  The average population is ill-informed about the steps leading up to the vaccination development process.  Some are ignorantly afraid, consumed with conspiracy theories, religious bias, political bipartisanship, and a strong opinion that the vaccination was produced too quickly.  Their invalid conclusion, therefore, that it is unsafe, ineffective, especially by not understanding that development took decades.  Half the voters who supported Trump in the last U.S. elections refuse to get vaccinated, a demographic of less-educated whites.  Many are consumed by conspiracy theories that the vaccination will result in a chip being inserted in your body so that Bill Gates will track you or that the devil will reside within your DNA.

In a New York Times article, they discuss how white Evangelical’s vaccine refusal could prolong the pandemic, impacting the need for herd immunity where at least seventy percent of the population is vaccinated.  Their objections included: “She believed it contained aborted cell tissue.”  A preacher “received a divine message that God was the ultimate healer and deliverer: The vaccine is not the savior.” Another: “she did not need the vaccine because God designed the body to heal itself if given the right nutrients.”  There are about 41 million white evangelical adults in the U.S.  According to the Pew Research Center, about 45% said in late February that they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19, making them among the least likely demographic groups to do so.  Some high-profile conservative pastors and institutional leaders have endorsed the vaccines.  Franklin Graham told his 9.6 million Facebook followers that Jesus would advocate for vaccination.  Pastor Robert Jeffress commended it from an anti-abortion perspective on Fox News. “We talk about life inside the womb is a gift from God.  Well, life outside the womb is a gift from God, too.” Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, president, tweeted a photo of himself receiving a vaccination.  Across white evangelical America, reasons not to get vaccinated have spread as quickly as the virus that public health officials hope to overcome through herd immunity.

By the end of March 2021, more than 551,000 Americans died of COVID-19.  Within my one immediate family, seven got infected from this virus, with one dying.  On March 31, 2021, 2.4 million Americans are getting vaccinated daily, yet cases and deaths are trending up again. 

On January 11, 2020, Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of the virus. Moderna finalized the mRNA vaccine in about 48 hours.  The reality is that the science of genetic engineering started in 1972.  It is what preceded this January 2020 date that is critical in understanding how the vaccine could be developed quickly.  The vaccination topic piqued my curiosity.  What role did science and technology play in bringing the vaccine to market in under one year?  That is the subject of three books that I read recently, identified below.

On March 22, 2021, while watching The Late Show on CBS with Stephen Colbert (7 minutes 15 seconds) interviewing Walter Isaacson to discuss his newly published book The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, I decided that I needed to know more.    It is a phenomenal work, a great read, and I recommend everyone who has the slightest interest in this topic to read Isaacson’s book.  Isaacson’s book was published on March 9, 2021.  During this interview, Walter describes Jennifer’s work with CRISPR and gene editing.  With my understanding that Pfizer and Moderna used this technology to develop their vaccines to fight COVID-19, I was interested in learning more.

“Look at the halo of letters—GCACGUAGUGU—on the cover of this book. It is a snippet of the RNA that creates the part of the spike protein that binds to human cells, and these letters became part of the code used in the new vaccines.”

After additional research, I requested from the library A Crack In Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A Doudna and Samuel H Sternberg, published August 21, 2018.

To put it mildly, I was so impressed with Jennifer and Samuel’s work that I purchased the book for my 14-year-old granddaughters.  I encouraged them to read the book and added the following comments to the inside cover of their book.

If you read this book, I believe that you will learn the following:

  • Jennifer read a chemistry book at age 12 that established an ambition to study for an undergraduate degree, Masters, and Doctorate that ultimately led to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.  (Update: the book Jennifer read was The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson.  See additional detail below).
  • Jennifer turned 57 on February 19, 2021.  She amassed numerous awards for her life work.
  • Jennifer is unquestionably an intellectual with deep thought, expressing cogent and rational arguments.
  • Jennifer did not do it on her own.  She stood on the shoulders of many people globally, clearly understanding the benefit of collaboration.  She published her research frequently.
  • The science was applied to horticulture, animals, fish, insects, bacteria, and eventually humans.
  • Jennifer’s book got published before the COVID virus, but her work led to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations that protect us today.
  • Jennifer attracted $500,000 investments for her team to carry out research.
  • There are many scientific and biological terms that you are unlikely to understand; I do not.  Read past them, but do not let that stop you from getting significant value from reading this book and understanding her process—words including Gene Editing, DNA, RNA, CRISPER, Cas9, GMO, and more.
  • The further you read, the more exciting and educational the book becomes.
  • One concern is if we use this technology to influence the characteristics of newborn babies, eugenics for short.  Jennifer screams aloud that human selection is unacceptable.
  • The bottom line: Reading the book will provide a way to universally understand science and government regulations controlling or limiting innovative thinking. An open mind helps.
  • As you read this book, could you be an author telling such a compelling story? (One twin has ambitions of becoming an author).
  • Remember, you can ask questions.  Try your dad, mom, or me—a pleasure to help.
  • Use Google to search “YouTube CRISPER” and other technology to learn more.

My motivation was two-fold in providing this encouragement.  When I grew up, I was not encouraged to study in any field other than engineering.  I was tested in high school and recommended by an industrial psychologist to follow a career in accounting.  While in engineering school, we had one female scholar in a class of over one hundred students.  Somehow, the thinking back in my day was, women do not have a place in science and technology.  A myth I wanted to be dispelled for my granddaughters.

After reading Jennifer’s book, I have dived into Walter Isaacson’s book.  I was blown away by his research.  He interviewed everyone that influenced Jennifer’s career, laboratory students appointed by her, competitors, scientific publishers, and business partners.  The book consists of noticeably short chapters that hold your interest with page-turning excitement—58 chapters in 476 pages, or 8.5 pages per chapter, on average.  The detail is reverting and exciting in the extreme.  Consider intellectual property patent intrigue.  Can you imagine a patent lawsuit being retried multiple times over eight years?  Jealousy and envy are terrible diseases in a competitive field, resulting in backstabbing.  Sadly, competitive relationships can become highly toxic, benefitting no one and creating a bitter relationship between former colleagues.  What about using this technology for terrorism?  What did the U.S. government invest in protecting or reversing nefarious use?  What position did religious leaders take?  How would or did politicians react to this technology?  How did the global community respond, vilify, or support?  What happens when a potential solution results in death?  What if international companies promote gene editing for newborn babies with desired characteristics?  What if the protagonist ends up being found guilty in a court of law with a heavy fine and jail time?

My mom died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2019.  Might it be possible to convert the APOE4 gene into a benign version?  The Alzheimer’s Association projects that by 2050 people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s will reach 12.7 million. The most significant protection against a person or laboratory using the technology to pursue eugenics, is lawsuits.

With Walter’s book, you do not require a doctorate or even an undergraduate degree in chemistry or biology.  Everything is explained in simple terms. It helps develop one’s understanding of the science involved with these breakthrough vaccinations.

Walter interviewed many collaborators, competitors, partners, and Jennifer’s team members.  Walter references 365 people in his book.  He provides cameos of multiple people, making the biographical story more human and exciting.  The text reads like a murder mystery, not that anyone got murdered, but some of the intrigues in the competitive laboratories are both exciting and entirely unbelievable.  Who stole ideas from whom?  Why the lies?  Could it be the result of competitiveness, who was the first to make a breakthrough scientific discovery? As with any scientific or technological endeavor, one must contend with charlatans out for publicity and fame.  The repercussions can be devastating, especially for the naïve coconspirators.  

The book challenges one on many moral issues.  If a deaf couple has a baby, it will likely be born deaf.  Should the medical profession take action to ensure the child is not deaf?  If technology allows the embryo to be altered so that the child will be a regular hearing child, is that morally acceptable?  Or what if you are a black couple wanting a light-skinned child?  Could Prince Harry and Megan Markle have made use of this process with Archie?  (Recall the troubling comments made during the Oprah Winfrey interview about Royal’s concern about the couple having a dark-skinned baby.  Racism anyone?).  Or short parents wanting to give birth to a tall child?  Should we morally establish a goal of inheritable gene edits?  Eradicate sickle cell disease?

I know that I have never been involved in this industry, and I am surprised when I read about the events that have taken place over the decades, how uninformed I am. 

If my granddaughters read Jennifer’s book, I plan to purchase Walter’s book for them to read.

Walter’s book is an essential read to understand what may be possible regarding baby selection in terms of desirable traits.  We cannot stop science or the inevitable outcome of what parents may choose within the characteristics and health of their offspring.  What if society becomes a robotic clone of each other? 

Isaacson’s book is an essential read.  I would challenge that the title Code Breaker is misleading.  The book challenges one to understand developments that have taken place in recent years in terms of genetics and the potential for how it could be employed in the future. What if this technology was only affordable by the ultra-wealthy?

I was so enamored with Isaacson’s book that I will reread it.  It is worth my time to gain even more knowledge after my initial read.  Think about the effort that went into multiple laboratories to develop a COVID-19 test.  None of the labs wanted the tests to be a moneymaking venture, only a way to isolate patients with the virus.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson.  By identifying DNA structure, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won a Nobel Prize.  At the time, Watson was only twenty-four, a young scientist hungry to make his mark.  The book was first published in 1968 and republished on August 16, 2011.  I consider myself a detailed person.  With my engineering and computer background, I am used to reading technical information.  I found, in an amusing way, that Watson wrote like a raconteur.  Do I need to know which pub Watson had dinner in London and what he ate?  Watson uses this tactic to explain the process they went through on their path to their breakthrough discoveries.  I can only imagine that Watson kept a diary of what he did daily to document all this detail.  That, or he must have a phenomenal memory.  The book consists of noticeably short chapters, a few pages each, resulting in an easy and quick read.

As a reminder, Jennifer Doudna’s reading this book as a child set her career choice.  I appreciate the coincidence that the last three letters of her last name are “DNA.”

James D. Watson was born in Chicago on April 6, 1928. After graduation from the University of Chicago, he worked in genetics at Indiana University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1950.  He spent a year at the University of Copenhagen, followed by two years at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University, England.  There he met Francis Crick, and the collaboration resulted in their 1953 proposal of a structure for DNA.  After two years at Cal Tech, he joined the Harvard faculty, where he remained a biochemistry and molecular biology professor until 1976. In 1962, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Dr. Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  It has been recognized that Watson and his colleagues did not correctly attribute colleague Rosalind Franklin for her contributions to the discovery of the double helix structure.

In Watson’s book, he is critical of Rosalind or Rose as she was known.  In a prologue written for the re-release, he apologized for his unkind words and recognized her contribution.

My message to my granddaughters.  Reading Watson’s book will teach you that scientific breakthroughs do not happen in a blink of an eye.  It is the result of years of dedication, disappointments, persistence, and ultimately a positive outcome.  It is not necessarily a guaranteed result.

To add to our interest, we watched the 1997 movie Gattaca.  DNA sequencing is a laboratory technique used to determine the exact sequence of bases (A, C, G, and T) in a DNA molecule.  Gattaca was made up of those four letters. “A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel.” Well, it is science fiction but provides food for thought of the possibilities. 

The bottom line: I am disappointed at the amount of disinformation and ignorant comments I have read about these life-saving vaccinations.  Get a life.  Get vaccinated.

Update April 10, 2021. USA COVID-19 cases, 31,084,962, deaths 561,074.  Fully vaccinated 68,202,458, (20.5%) one-shot 114,436,039 (34.5%).  Currently, the concern is for a potential fourth wave, especially among younger adults.  The current rate of vaccinations in the U.S. 3.1 million per day

Update April 17, 2021. USA COVID-19 cases, 31,574,340, deaths 565,260.  Fully vaccinated 80,609,818, (24.3%) one-shot 127,743,096 (38.5%).  Currently, the concern is for a potential fourth wave, especially among younger adults.  The current rate of vaccinations in the U.S. 3.9 million per day.

Update April 24, 2021.  USA. COVID-19 cases, 31,730,950, deaths 567,352.  Fully vaccinated 91,175,995 (27.5%) one-shot 137,234,889 (41.3%).  Currently, the concern is a reluctance for people to get vaccinated.  Some states have more vaccinations available than people willing to get vaccinated.  The current rate of vaccinations in the U.S. 2.28 million per day.

Update May 1, 2021.  USA. COVID-19 cases, 32,091,429, deaths 572,190.  Fully vaccinated 101,407,318 (30.5%) one-shot 144,894,586 (43.6%).  Vaccine fully vaccinated by series: Pfizer 51,134,807 Moderna 42,065,146 J&J 8,162,494.  The current rate of vaccinations in the U.S. 2.36 million per day.  Concerns that some people after receiving the first dose of Pfizer or Moderna are not returning for their second dose.

Update May 8, 2021.  USA. COVID-19 cases, 32,403,159, deaths 577,041.  Fully vaccinated 110,874,920 (33.4%) one-shot 150,416,559 (45.3%).  Vaccine fully vaccinated by series: Pfizer 56,659,985 Moderna 45,501,811 J&J 8,665,290.  The current rate of vaccinations in the U.S. 1.75 million per day.  The best news is that the rates of COVID infections in the US are dropping by 14% daily cases for a positivity rate of 3.9%.  Our granddaughters, over the age of 12 will be vaccinated next week getting their first Pfizer dose, the only vaccination authorized for them currently.