Book Review: A Shot To Save The World

A Shot To Save The World is a riveting book on how different biotechnology companies raced against one another and time to produce the world-saving Covid-19 vaccines. The author did a good job telling the stories of not only what happened in the past two years, but also what transpired leading to the astonishing achievements that our modern scientists unlocked. The stories are broken into 19 chapters, each of which covers a period ranging from 1979 to 2021 and a character whose professional and personal struggles would eventually contribute to the birth of Covid-19 vaccines. Audience will get to know Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman, Luigi Warren, Stephane Bancel (current CEO of Moderna), Ugur Sahin or Ozlem Tureci, just to name a few. Some of them are more famous than others, but each had a role in to play in the invention of the current vaccines we have today. It’s interesting to learn about their professional as well as personal journeys.

I usually review a book by sharing some of the content that I deem noteworthy, but for this book, I am going to share below some of the things I took away and leave the interesting read to you.

A career in biotechnology is not for everyone

Throughout the book, readers will come to see how difficult it is to work as a scientist in biotechnology. Long hours, countless experiments, constant pressure to deliver results and perennial lack of funding. For example, Kariko and Weissman started working together in 1998 on mRNA and were determined to find a way to sneak it past our immune system. Their breakthrough only came several years later, culminating in a published paper in 2005. In the meantime, Kariko had to take an undeserved demotion to keep her dream alive while battling health issues. Even after the paper was published, they still didn’t gain the recognition of their work at the time and still struggled to further their discovery because of the resource constraints.

In 2001, Uguer Sahin and Ozlem Tureci together started a company called Ganymed. Seven years later, with financial support from a couple of German billionaires, the couple founded BioNTech. As of 2011, neither Ganymed nor BioNTech had anything in even the early stage trial. By 2017, nine years and a lot of investor money after its founding, BioNTech only had one drug in the medium stage trial with no sight on any revenue stream.

If you are used to the corporate world where results are much quicker to come by, imagine how difficult it is to work relentlessly for years without any concrete results. You basically have to run on blind faith that the breakthrough will come some day. There is no guarantee. There is little short-term reward. Just faith and conviction. If that’s not challenging, I really don’t know what is.

Investing in biotech firms is extremely risky

Because it usually takes a long time for scientists to make a breakthrough, if they even make one in the first place, it’s risky to be an investor in biotechnology. The Struengmann brothers are German billionaires and early backers of BioNTech. A decade after pouring millions of euros into the startup and the Turkish couple, the brothers had nothing to show for their money. One of them even questioned why they believed in Sahin and Tureci in the first place.

Moderna was founded in 2010 with early backing from Noubar Afeyan and other investors. The company had the biggest IPO in biotech industry’s history in 2018 at $23 share. The stock traded at $18-19 in 2019 and early 2020, lower than its IPO price. One of its early investors, Viking Global Investors, dumped almost all of its stocks, about 5% of the company, at the end of 2019, signaling a lack of trust in the company’s outlook. The fate of Moderna took a major turn when the pandemic hit and the company bet everything on its ability to produce a vaccine. Had the pandemic not come or had Moderna failed at its effort, there is no telling where the company would be today.

“As 2020 began, Novavax was conducting late-stage trials for yet another vaccine from Smith and his research team, which was now down to fewer than twenty people. This time, they were tackling the flu. Early data was impressive, but existing flu shots were largely effective, and no one was willing to fund Novavax’s program.”

“We were down to not a lot of people, no facilities, no money, no confidence,” Glenn says

“The flu vaccine was the company’s last chance. Erck had managed to keep Novavax going for over a decade, pulling his team off the mat after each failure and frustration. Even he was getting gloomy, though.”

Novavax was trading at $3 – $4 a share in 2019 and early 2020 before skyrocketing during the pandemic

If you are an investor, ask yourself whether you have the stomach to go through what those investors went through. To me, difficult as a word is not enough and I, unfortunately, don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice.

Fate is a magical thing

Many scientists working on mRNA benefitted from the work that Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant, and Drew Weissman did. They, in turn, likely couldn’t have had their breakthrough in 2005, had it not been for the work that others did before them. For Kariko, she wouldn’t have been able to stay in the U.S, had a scientist at the Bethesda Naval Hospital not given her a job when she was on the verge of deportation and nobody else took a chance on her.

The Struengmann brothers, rich as they were, gambled on a young Turkish couple, even when there was scant evidence of what they could achieve. Without their backing, who’s to say whether BioNTech would even exist and whether we would even have a vaccine from them to save millions around the world?

During its early years, Moderna struggled to create a drug using mRNA. Everything they tried at the time failed and the company was on the brink of collapses. Then, a staff named Eric Huang came with the idea that instead of a drug, Moderna should start making a vaccine. The technical challenges that Moderna faced at the time were features of a vaccine. Why not pivoting? Fortunately for us, Stephan Bancel and the Board of Directors of Moderna agreed with Eric. Otherwise, who knows where Moderna or we would be today?

These are just a few examples of countless events that had to happen and in the right sequence so that we and the world could be saved from a deadly pandemic. The course of history would change dramatically if one of these events hadn’t happened. None of us could write this script. Only the magical fate could. And thankfully it did.

I hope by now I made you a tad more interested in the book. I think it’s great. The stories are persona, appealing and inspiring. I finished the book feeling inspired and grateful for all the work and sacrifices that so many scientists had to make for the good of science and our society. It’s easy now to just walk into a Walmart or Hy-vee to get a vaccine. But only by reading this book did I understand the work leading to the birth of that vaccine is full of blood, sweat, tears and sheer luck.

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