UCI Medical Center. Image via psychiatry.uci.edu

Nine scientists who pioneered and helped develop technology that led to the COVID-19 vaccines will be honored for their work at an event Friday at UC Irvine.

The development of the COVID-19 vaccines is much like the breakthrough of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the 1950s and could usher in a rush of new disease-preventing shots, UC Irvine’s director of vaccine research Philip Felgner said.

Development of the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines was like Salk’s breakthrough and Felgner, who was a pioneer in the mRNA technology, noted that “within a couple of years of (Salk’s vaccine) nine more vaccines became available right away. And it really impacted children’s mortality.”

Felgner and eight other scientists who contributed to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines were set to gather on the UCI campus Friday to discuss their work and the future of the mRNA technology.

Felgner’s pioneering work dates back to 1984 with a discovery that helped spawn the science that culminated in the mRNA vaccines.

The mRNA technology has been in the works for more than 30 years, but the true breakthrough came during the pandemic and the shots began rolling out in January of last year.

“With mRNA vaccines we weren’t able to draw on history to really convincingly say it’s safe, but at the same time we had to respond to the outbreak — there was no alternative and the vaccine wasn’t developed like an ordinary vaccine,” Felgner said. “It was the first time it was developed, so it’s a miracle that we actually had this to respond to the outbreak, but now we’re months down the road and if someone was going to criticize it for not being tested they might have had a position sometime back, but not today. It’s unbelievable. There hasn’t been a vaccine tested as much as this one has. And the healthcare professionals are thrilled because it’s so safe. It’s incredible.”

Felgner said the scientists working to develop the vaccines had no idea how successful they would be in preventing infection or severe illness.

“You could easily think it would be maybe 50-50,” he said. “What actually happened was spectacular. It was a spectacular success that there weren’t many people predicting.”

The clinical trials “were so surprising that a lot of people thought it was dreamed up by the developers,” Felgner said.

The herd immunity among healthcare workers at UCI was about 25% from infections in December of 2020 “and we were actually feeling pretty good that the population was developing immunity naturally, but then the vaccine got introduced and by Dec. 16 of 2020 and after they vaccinated 6,000 healthcare workers at UCI Medical Center in one month the herd immunity went up to 78%. We didn’t believ4e that one. And just as a scientist you’re always skeptical of everything, but we weren’t skeptical by the second month when it was up to 93% and then by the third month it was 99%.”

Felgner said the flu vaccine at its best is 50% effective at preventing infection.

“This year it happens to be 16%,” he said.

The mRNA technology has the potential to cure cancer and Alzheimer’s and many other diseases, Felgner said.

“We had some of the real seminal findings for sure in 1985, but we didn’t have all the tools that we needed to bring it to the pinnacle that it is today,” Felgner said.

Felgner explained that the flu vaccine is developed from an egg, so “If you want 200 million vaccines you need 200 million eggs. That’s where the mRNA vaccine is incredible — the manufacturing benefit.”

Scientists will soon develop an mRNA flu vaccine which will be a great deal easier to manufacture and will be more effective, he said.

Felgner said he has been impressed to see how effective the COVID-19 vaccines have held up with the various mutations.

“And that is because it is producing a powerful immune response,” he said. “And the flu vaccine doesn’t do that. We’re really in a new realm with this. A number of us envisioned this 35 years ago, but there just needed to be 35 years of science behind it in order to bring it to maturity the way it is now.”

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