Section: News

Kornfeld and Lodish give talk on global health and vaccines

Kornfeld and Lodish give talk on global health and vaccines


On Tuesday, President Julie Kornfeld and Trustee Harvey Lodish ’62 H’82 P’89 GP’21 gave a lecture titled “Beyond the Lab: Biotechnology’s Role in Public Health” in Oden Auditorium. The talk featured two parts from Kornfeld and Lodish each regarding the success of the COVID-19 vaccine’s discovery, manufacturing process and delivery, along with a Q&A following their lecture. 

The primary focus of Lodish’s talk was the history of mRNA vaccines, which date back to the 1990s in early attempts to create a cancer vaccine. Similar technology was previously utilized to make vaccines for influenza and respiratory viruses; Lodish added that a similar mRNA vaccine was developed during the Ebola epidemic. Though it was not tested in 2014, the technology was beneficial for Pfizer, which could then begin producing the COVID-19 vaccine rapidly. 

Lodish highlighted three main scientific discoveries that aided the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The first was understanding the coronavirus’ receptor binding domain, which binds to a receptor protein on lung cells and causes infection. An important step in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine was identifying what the COVID-19 virus’ receptors looked like. Scientists drew from the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus spike that had a strikingly similar structure to the COVID-19 virus.

Vaccine development then addressed physical changes to the virus, which occur after it binds to the target cell. “It gets rid of some of the protein and forms a three-stranded needle-like structure, which in fact, is a needle and inserts into the recipient, the infected cell and initiates viral infection,” Lodish said. To prevent this transformation, scientists discovered that a certain protein had to be locked down to neutralize the change. 

Lastly, scientists needed to identify how to prevent the immune system from attacking the vaccine too early. Scientists tested a variety of chemical modifications of RNA and discovered the conversion of uracil to pseudouracil, more commonly known as pseudouridine. “In terms of its molecular structure, pseudouracil functions identically as uracil,” Lodish said. “But because it’s slightly different chemically, it doesn’t induce the same cellular toxic reaction, gets into the ribosomes and makes a lot of protein. And that really enabled the mRNA vaccine.”

These discoveries were crucial to both the development of the COVID-19 vaccine and the scientific accessibility of mRNA vaccines for future viruses. “All you need is the sequence of the pathogen and you can make a vaccine, using the spike protein or equivalent protein, and be reasonably sure it’s going to work,” Lodish said. 

Following Lodish, Kornfeld spoke about global health and the inequity of vaccine distribution, which she explained was skewed strongly toward high-income countries. These countries had the purchasing power to buy vaccine doses in large quantities, reducing the amount of vaccines available for other countries. In addition, most vaccine production was done in the global north, increasing availability for those countries. 

Kornfeld also highlighted COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), a multilateral coalition of world health organizations created to fight vaccine inequity. However, COVAX was mostly unsuccessful due to intellectual property (IP) laws in the United States and other systemic barriers to vaccine distribution. 

Kornfeld explained that IP laws and trade agreements are vital to vaccine distribution, as drug discoveries in the US are often impacted by commercialization and investment opportunities. Increased purchasing power and trade agreements with manufacturers give higher-income countries easier access to vaccine doses. “When we’re in a race against supply and time, that matters,” she said. 

She then explained that COVAX had difficulty going against the market, as they lacked purchasing power on behalf of low-income countries. “We can’t move the manufacturing plants that we have here to Africa overnight, where we have high needs and very much a potential for the next outbreaks,” Kornfeld said. “So how do we build infrastructure and manufacturing, when it’s disproportionately located in the global north?” 

Another systemic barrier to vaccine delivery and distribution lies in determining high-risk populations. Kornfeld described how vaccine development in the global north primarily focused on identifying high risk populations in the United States and Europe, which did not adequately address other high risk populations — such as people living in densely populated areas, or locations where respiratory diseases have high transmission rates.

“How do we define at-risk populations?” Kornfeld asked. “How do we distribute and deliver the vaccine to those populations?” 

Following the lecture, both Kornfeld and Lodish took questions from the audience, ranging from the perceived biggest failures of vaccine distribution agencies like COVAX to Lodish’s recent trip to Uganda, Ghana and Malawi as he explored vaccine manufacturing and delivery. The Q&A lasted for nearly 30 minutes, with several audience members contributing questions. 

“I really enjoyed the opportunity and particularly enjoyed the question and answer period — we had some excellent questions from faculty and staff,” Kornfeld wrote in an email to the Collegian. “I am looking to continued opportunities to share my public health background with students.” 


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