Necessity is the mother of invention, but don’t take my word for it – or Plato’s for that matter. Instead, take the word of CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour.
Earlier this week, on the award-winning global affairs programme, Amanpour, she revealed that Cuba is on the verge of a Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough. News of a lung cancer vaccine out of Cuba has been circulating for the last five years and, happily, it turns out that Cuban immunologists have been able to engineer its technology to apply to coronavirus. The novel Cuban Covid-19 vaccine works similarly to its lung cancer vaccine cousin: it targets the viral growth factor and latches it onto a very unique protein a mix that is then inoculated.
This breakthrough comes despite Cuba’s aged medical infrastructure, its weak foreign investment and years of lacklustre economic performance, as Amanpour points out. However, her guest, Candace Johnson, chief executive of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Centre, is quick to remark: “Cuba was sort of forced into this because […] they didn’t have access to the drugs that you might get in western countries [so] they developed the technologies to vaccinate their own people”.
Where there is need, there is a way. Necessity is an incredible motivator of ingenuity and invention.
And the race to develop a vaccine over the past 12 months has been an emblem of Plato’s proverb: global immunologists were still uncertain of the structure and behaviour of the Covid virus when they were developing a vaccine. This is remarkable, given what we conventionally know about inoculation and how it has worked for decades. Needing a solution, despite many unknowns, forced scientists to redirect the scope of the vaccine not to the pathogen itself but to the human immune system’s response. That’s where genius lies: mRNA technology used to make the Moderna vaccineteaches cells how to make a viral protein to trigger an immune response, without having to inoculate the pathogen.
And what if this complex, yet generic design had the power to tackle viruses such as HIV? Michael Barbaro, host of The New York Times podcast The Daily, recently sat down with Megan Twohey, a Times investigative reporter, to ask: “can Bill Gates vaccinate the world?” Her answer? Yes – and the foundation’s vaccine department already knows which horse to bet on: Covax. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was one of the early investors in mRNA vaccine technology and it’s now being reported that its attention – and sizable investments – are being redirected to HIV. In fact, Moderna recently revealed to its investors that it will be conducting early-stage research for an HIV vaccine, given the success of its Covid-19 vaccine.
So, while the past year has been a uniquely difficult one for so many, it has also enabled great strides in medical research and innovation – progress that would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances. We have unlocked doors and made discoveries which may go on to save lives in the future, be they from HIV or an unknown virus still waiting to be discovered. And we have done it at a pace unmatched in human history.
That, I pose, is something to feel optimistic about.