I liked working in the biotech industry. There was something so refreshing, so honest, about what we were doing and how we talked about it. We were a business. We were there to create products based on good science. If the science was good, if the data supported one approach over another, that’s what mattered. It didn’t matter whether you spoke with an accent or whether you’d attended an Ivy League school or if you were good at schmoozing.
At BioNTech, employees came from 65 different countries. Not all of us spoke German, but all of us spoke science.
For the first time in my life, I no longer did every experiment myself. I led a basic science team, and together we did experiments to figure out how to improve our mRNA and its formulations. BioNTech made steady progress toward mRNA cancer immunotherapies. We also began working on mRNA vaccines for various infectious diseases. This meant I got to keep working with my colleague Drew Weissman, too. BioNTech began funding Drew’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, allowing him to make concrete strides toward a whole host of new vaccines. This included the HIV vaccine that had begun our journey of discovery. Although we were running clinical trials and had our own products, we also formed partnerships with other, larger companies. One of these was announced in 2018: a partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to create an mRNA-based influenza vaccine. We began doing studies.
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I liked working at BioNTech. I liked it a lot.
Then one day in January, six years after I’d started at BioNTech, our CEO Uğur Sahin read an article in The Lancet about something unfolding on a different continent entirely: a new respiratory virus circulating through Wuhan, China.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next. If you were alive in early 2020, you have your own memories. You remember the world changing.
The new coronavirus—what came to be known as SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19—spread very rapidly, and it could be serious. Because it was novel, people had no immunity against it.
We would need a vaccine, and fast.
Before this moment, the fastest vaccine ever made was developed in the 1960s, for mumps. The effort had taken four years. But in early 2020, the whole world was shut down. Entire economies were cratering. Frontline workers were exposed to this dangerous virus daily, while even those with the luxury of staying home were restricted from seeing their loved ones.
We didn’t have four years.
But speed has always been one of the promises of mRNA therapies and vaccines: if we know the genetic sequence for an antigen, we can make mRNA that codes for that antigen and get it into a lipid delivery vehicle very, very quickly. Uğur and Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, made a courageous decision: 100% percent of the company’s resources would be put toward making a vaccine to prevent infection from this new virus.
They bet everything.
It would be impossible to fully capture the urgency and energy of 2020. Entire books have been written about the development of the vaccine. What I will say here is this: it was a stunning effort, one that required courage, expertise, decisiveness, and precision. I saw these traits not only at the highest levels of leadership—Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive officer, Uğur, and Özlem—but also among everyone who worked on this project: employees, contractors, suppliers, and other professionals.
If I was impressed by the industry before, I was awed by it in 2020. What we at BioNTech together with Pfizer accomplished that year felt like nothing short of a miracle. It wasn’t just a matter of creating a new vaccine using a new platform; this vaccine required new industrial machinery and equipment, mass freezer farms, new transportation standards, an entirely new global supply chain. Everything needed to be in place, more or less immediately, with no bottlenecks or pauses.
The logistics of all of this were mind-boggling, the investment breathtaking. Pfizer made billions of doses of the vaccine, and somehow the first vial that rolled across the production line was the same as the billionth dose, right down to the last molecule. Every time a pharmacy or hospital or community center opened a new vial of vaccines, they could be reassured it was the exact same product.
Here was my life’s work, moving far beyond me, out into the big wide world. I’d say it felt a bit like watching one’s child heading off to school for the first time, but that hardly captures the scale and speed at which everything was happening. It was, perhaps, more like watching your child row across an Olympic finish line, having been supported by the best coaches and teammates in the world, then winning a gold medal with the whole world watching.
Under ordinary circumstances, vaccines and new drugs are tested in sequential phases. The COVID-19 vaccines went through all the same phases, but we ran some of them together, which allowed us to get our results even faster. Even as these studies were being done, Pfizer had already manufactured millions of doses of the vaccine, which were sitting and waiting in ultracold warehouses.
If the trial showed that the vaccine had worked, these doses could start rolling out to the public almost immediately.
Many colleagues have reported being nervous before the data came in. I wasn’t anxious. To the contrary, I felt I already knew.
Nov. 8, 2020, was a Sunday. My husband Béla and I quietly celebrated our daughter Susan’s birthday at home. In the evening, the phone rang. It was Uğur. He told me that he’d just learned from Albert Bourla that the vaccine worked. The results, in fact, were unequivocal: our modified-mRNA vaccine had 95% efficacy against the virus strain then circulating.
When I hung up the phone, I turned to Béla. I felt so calm.
“It works,” I said simply.
Then, for the first time in my career, I didn’t immediately return to work upon hearing good news. Instead, I celebrated the best way I knew how, in one of the most surreal periods of our lives: by opening a movie theater–size box of Goobers and eating the whole thing.
Just before Christmas, more than 20 years after we met, Drew and I received our BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccines together at Penn. In the hallway, health care workers were lining up—six feet apart—to get their vaccines, too. One of my colleagues shouted, “These are the inventors of the vaccine!” A roar of cheers followed, and my eyes grew misty.
Still, the claim wasn’t quite right. We had made our breakthrough, sure, and that breakthrough had found its moment in a pandemic. But so many people deserved cheers. There was, of course, the long line of scientists who had come before us, whose work made our own possible. Then there were the medical professionals and frontline workers who’d taken care of the infected patients, gone to work every day during the last year when there was no vaccine, all risking their own lives to save others. There were all the people at BioNTech and Pfizer and the companies with whom we’d contracted: engineers and technicians and warehouse workers, people with expertise in things I’d never even imagined; manufacturing and machinery and shipping and logistics, which allowed us to make and deliver a vaccine in under a year. And, of course, there were the tens of thousands of trial participants, each of whom volunteered to test a new vaccine, using a relatively new platform, during a time of unprecedented fear.
All around me now were still others who deserved cheers: the people making this very vaccine drive possible. There were too many people to count, too many sacrifices to absorb. As that needle filled with modified mRNA went into my skin, I began to weep. It was all so humbling. Mostly, I was honored to be a part of it.
The mRNA molecule exists temporarily, to deliver a message. I hope my experiences with mRNA can deliver a message or two as well.
My first message is this: We can do better. I believe we can improve how science is done at academic research institutions. For one thing, we might create a clearer distinction between markers of prestige—titles, publication records, number of citations, grant funding, committee appointments, etiquette, dollars per net square footage—and those of quality science. Too often, we conflate the two, as if they’re one and the same. But a person isn’t a better scientist because she publishes more, or first. Similarly, the number of citations might have little to do with the value of the paper and more to do with external events. When Drew and I published our own landmark paper, it barely got any notice. It took a pandemic for the world to understand what we’d done and why it mattered.
We can also expand the criteria by which we measure our scientists. Most institutions define a scientist’s value, first and foremost, by their funding. But most grants require a researcher to define at a very high level of detail what work they will do, what discoveries they might make. I’d argue that science, at its best, is about asking questions, trying things, and going wherever that inquiry takes you. It requires walking into the unknown—the unknown is the very point!
A final message: the COVID-19 vaccines opened the door to mRNA’s practical application. But this isn’t where it ends. Scientists are studying mRNA’s potential for therapies against multiple cancers, cystic fibrosis, and rare metabolic disorders, as well as for vaccines against some of our most vexing infectious diseases. In the next decade, I think, we will see an explosion of new mRNA therapies and vaccines.
I’ll be watching as closely as anyone.
Waking up to the call informing me that Drew and I had won a Nobel Prize was exhilarating. It was an amazing feeling. But after the initial rush of excitement, doubt crept it. Was this really happening? What if it was a bizarre joke? Reality started to sink in when I watched the formal announcement via livestream.
It’s still sinking in. I’d always known our work was important, and over the past few years, we’ve seen its remarkable application on a global scale. But this phase of my life, being in the spotlight as a champion for science, won’t last forever, and that’s OK. I can already feel the pull toward something quieter—a time when I can sit down and begin to read science articles. The things I read about will prompt new questions, and these questions will yield new experiments.
But for now, I want to savor this moment just a while longer. I want to remember how it felt when we all were young, just starting out. I also want to picture all the young scientists who are just starting out now—the ones whose work I’ll soon read and who will someday make breakthroughs none of us can yet imagine.
There is so much more to discover.
From the book Breaking Through: My Life in Science by Katalin Karikó. Copyright 2023 by Katalin Kariko. Published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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