News & Trends

Anuzis: The larger promise of new vaccine tech


By Saul Anuzis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that fully vaccinated Americans can gather indoors with friends and family — without wearing masks or social distancing.

This guidance is great news for older Americans, who’ve rightly been prioritized for vaccines. Tens of millions of seniors have been jabbed. Given their higher-risk status, many had foregone physical contact with loved ones, including grandchildren, for over a year.

Now, there’s no longer any need to live in isolation.

More hope is on the horizon. The technology underpinning COVID-19 vaccines could lead to future treatments and inoculations for numerous other diseases — as long as lawmakers continue to support policies that foster innovation.

The development of three highly effective COVID-19 vaccines — from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson — in under a year is an historic achievement.

Such rapid innovation was the culmination of years of dedicated research.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to trigger an immune response that helps our bodies fend off the coronavirus. Moderna has been researching mRNA since 2010, while BioNTech scientists have been studying the technology for over 25 years. This foundational research helped them design their respective vaccines so quickly.

Johnson & Johnson also employed prior technological advancements to fast-track development. The company’s “viral-vector” vaccine uses a genetically modified common cold virus to trigger the immune response that protects recipients from COVID-19.

These underlying technologies may spawn a new generation of medicines. Scientists are already exploring “universal” flu vaccines based on mRNA and viral vector platforms. Meanwhile, Moderna is testing mRNA-based personalized cancer therapeutics and vaccines. And Alzheimer’s researchers are conceiving mRNA applications that could prevent cognitive decline. If successful, these advancements could lead to longer and happier lives for older adults, who are disproportionately affected by these diseases.

Yet, inexplicably, some politicians seem eager to destroy the delicate ecosystem that makes these medical breakthrough ventures possible.

Democratic lawmakers have just revived the ill-conceived Lower Drug Costs Now Act, also known as H.R. 3. Marketed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a simple bill to “negotiate” drug prices, the legislation would actually achieve savings by having the federal government set the price of prescription drugs. Passing H.R. 3 could save the government money in the short-term, but it would come at significant cost to the medical innovation benefiting American seniors.

Turning promising lab discoveries into real-world medicines is risky. Less than 12 percent of experimental drugs survive rigorous clinical trials. Because of this high failure rate, bringing a new medicine to market costs nearly $3 billion, on average.

Companies would not be able to reinvest in new lifesaving R&D projects — including those related to new mRNA and viral vector-based medicines — if price controls limit their ability to recoup their upfront costs.

In fact, H.R. 3 could prevent the creation of 56 new medicines over a decade, according to one recent study from Vital Transformation, a consulting firm.

What if one of those new medicines is the cure against — or vaccine to prevent — the next pandemic?

Over the past year, we’ve seen biotech firms devise multiple lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. Those same firms could be on the verge of delivering vaccines and treatments for other lethal ailments. It’s astounding that lawmakers would even consider laying a stumbling block in scientists’ way.

Saul Anuzis is President of 60 Plus, the American Association of Senior Citizens.

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