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EPISODE 272

A Shot to Save the World: Greg Zuckerman’s Scoop on the Race to a COVID-19 Vaccine

49 minutes · November 29, 2021

Gregory Zuckerman, author of A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine, spent the past 22 months diving deep into the companies and personalities developing a defense to the pandemic. Greg returns to the podcast to share the vibrant story of perseverance, inspiration, and triumph that culminated in the creation of not one but several shots to end a modern plague. He also updates listeners on the subject of his last book, RenTec’s Jim Simons.

Speaker 1:

From the library of the New York Stock Exchange, at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in New York City, you're inside the ICE House, our podcast from Intercontinental Exchange on markets, leadership, and vision in global business, the dream drivers that have made the NYSE an indispensable institution of global growth for over 225 years.

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Each week, we feature stories of those who hatch plans, create jobs, and harness the engine of capitalism, right here, right now at the NYSE and at ICE's exchanges and clearing houses around the world. Now welcome, inside the ICE House, here's your host, Josh King of Intercontinental Exchange.

Josh King:

The dates are enshrined on a little piece of paper that, to me and 193 million other people like me, really means the world. March 3rd, 2021 and March 30th, 2021, the dates that I got my first and second doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. It meant that I could go out to a restaurant, ride the subway, and work in my office with the degree of confidence that I would not become a victim of the pandemic, or if I did become infected, the chances that I'd be hospitalized or die were pretty damn improbable.

Josh King:

Nearly 250 years ago, American soldiers fought for our freedom and they've been renewing that fight for themselves and on behalf of others at many intervals since. Not to get too dramatic about this, but the men and women in lab coats, soldiers of a sort of the 21st century have been waging a similar fight in the form of 2.5 milliliter doses of a liquid thawed for an hour at room temperature of between 15 and 25 degrees centigrade and administered in the arm via hypodermic needle.

Josh King:

The archetype of the Wall Street Blockbuster has evolved over time. The barons, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and others have been replaced this year by the disruptor astronauts of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. What has not changed are the characteristics of competitiveness, passion, self-confidence in intellect that drives them to accomplish the impossible, oh, and also beat their competition at all costs.

Josh King:

The boom and bust, the failure and success of companies who create ideas, manufacture the products and bring them to market always make for a great story. The library of the New York Stock Exchange is filled with books by and about guests we've had on this podcast and thousands more whose scientific industrial and business exploits we can only have wished to have sat down in conversation.

Josh King:

Today we're joined by the best-selling author of a few of those tomes. Gregory Zuckerman was our guest back in episode 149, which we released nearly two years ago on December 16th, 2019, and returns at about the interval that it takes to outline, pitch, research, write, and publish another tract, if you don't necessarily take a lot of time to eat, sleep, and breathe. Greg's newest topic, The People Behind The Biggest Scientific Breakthrough and Global Event Of That Same Period, And Perhaps A Lot More, is his topic of his new book.

Josh King:

Greg spent the last 22 months deciphering the scientists behind the major vaccines to the virus that causes COVID-19. Along the way, Greg reveals that often the success in the lab requires the same stamina as success on Wall Street. Fortunately, for a lot of us, this group of lesser known and little known researchers was up to the task. On each page, Greg lays out the story of their perseverance, inspiration, and ultimately triumph in creating not just one, but many shots to end this modern plague.

Josh King:

Our conversation with Gregory Zuckerman, author of A Shot To Save The World: The Inside Story Of The Life Or Death Race For A COVID-19 Vaccine, is coming up right after this.

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Josh King:

Gregory Zuckerman is a special writer at the Wall Street Journal, where he writes about business, economic, and investment topics. He's a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, the highest honor in business journalism. Greg's a familiar face on CNBC and the author of several books, including The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story Of The New Billionaire Wildcatters, the greatest trade ever. The behind the scenes story of how John Paulson defied Wall Street and made financial history.

Josh King:

And the subject of his first appearance on our podcast, The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched The Quant Revolution. He's returned inside the ICE House to talk about his newest book, A Shot To Save The World: The Inside Story Of The Life Or Death Race For A COVID-19 Vaccine. Greg, welcome inside the ICE House.

Greg Zuckerman:

That was a great introduction. Well, I should keep that for other future appearances. That was impressive.

Josh King:

I'll send you the document, Greg. Your first visit inside the ICE House, December 2019, at the time, you were in the midst of your book tour for The Man Who Solved The Market. Before we dive into the shot, I wanted to check in with you on the subject of that last book, Jim Simons. Have you kept in touch with him and the other folks that Renaissance Technologies, famed for their exceptional returns and secretive trading practices. But they've also been experiencing a tumultuous year during the pandemic.

Josh King:

Renaissance is still an obsession of mine and how they continue to beat the market. And they do, with their Medallion fund. There are other funds that are open to public investors have not done nearly as well. But medallion, last I checked, I think they were up about 40 or so for 2021. They had a very good 2020, not the 70, 80% that sometimes they've seen, but an impressive return on the OS.

Greg Zuckerman:

I mean, even if performance was turning around, a lot of the external investors have redeemed from those funds. In July, the firm suffered, I think, $11 billion in cumulative outflows. Your reporting highlights that many investors were disappointed by the mounting losses and the firms' explanations or lack thereof of what was going on. Are they beginning to attract new investors or are they going to basically just cave in on themselves and focus on Medallion?

Josh King:

Yeah, it's interesting. Medallion has always done well and continues to do well. But their outside funds haven't gotten worse over the years. They had a rocky start when they were unveiled in the late 2000s, but then were pretty good performers. And then, the just last few years have really underperformed, and investors, as you suggest, have lost their patience and pulled out.

Josh King:

There's also this frustration, "Well, how can Medallion do so well on the outside and funds not do well?" I get into it in my book. I explain how they're very different strategies. But that doesn't mean it's not any less frustrating for these investors. The Renaissance people have also had other challenges. They've had to write this big, huge tax settlement. Both interest and in penalties are paid to the government because they were caught converting trades that...

Josh King:

They believed they were legal, trades that were short-term in nature. The government viewed them as having been converted to long term and that helped them tax-wise. Jim Simons himself wrote a check for over $600 million, a personal check to pay for a lot of the fines and the interest. So it's been an interesting period for those investors and traders over there.

Greg Zuckerman:

I mean, speaking of the investing strategies that other people use, if they're not necessarily using what Medallion is using, I saw a tweet of yours yesterday or so that some indicators suggest that despite this soaring market that we've all been witnessing for the past 12 years or so, all may not be well in the economy. You later followed that up with a retweet where you comment that many of investors have not seen a bear market in their lifetime. Do you think the under 40 investor with crypto exposure is thinking long term enough?

Josh King:

I mean, they're thinking long-term in terms of like a week or so, if that's defined as long term. It depends how you define long term. It's a fascinating world where, yeah, you had that little blip in March 2020 where things went down, crypto collapsed, and they learned to have those diamond hands and it's worked out well for them. Yeah, I think I was commenting on a piece a colleague did about how young investors today don't care about financial planning and just buy things like crypto. That's their retirement stake.

Josh King:

Listen, it's worked out well so far. But historically speaking, we do go into... There are bear markets. As you suggest, I did a story recently saying the bond market is flashing a real red signal. I mean, a flattening yield curve historically has been really a warning sign. Maybe this time around the stock market in junk bonds and crypto is right and the bond market is wrong. But we'll see.

Greg Zuckerman:

The guy who doesn't need to worry too much about a flattening yield curve is the 83 year old, Jim Simons. Curious, what do you think of the IRS settlement with Ren Tech? What does that mean for these headlines that we're seeing about the tax issues that people like Elon and Jeff Bezos?

Josh King:

In my book, I suggest they probably will get a slap on the wrist for these strategies, because they are short term in nature, these trades. They converted them through these options I write about, into long-term trades. They got legal advice and they got approval and all that stuff. But yeah, people internally have been bracing for the IRS to crack down on them. A lot of them have said they've been told to set aside money. They have set aside money to pay for these fines and the back interest, and the taxes that they didn't pay.

Josh King:

So it doesn't come as a real shock to the people there. I mean, they make an argument. It's not a bad argument. These strategies that they embraced, the options, et cetera, the goal wasn't to avoid taxes, but it was a really nice side benefit. So yeah, I wouldn't lose any sleep over that. Jim Simons is still worth over $25 billion and he's still very focused on philanthropy and still healthy, despite the chain smoking. Yeah. The guy's sharp as a tack and seems fine, thankfully.

Greg Zuckerman:

The last time we were talking to you, you were getting ready to take the life of the author, going on an overseas book tour with your sons to Europe and Israel, January 2020. Are you getting ready to get back on the road and has the book promotional game changed with the rise of remote options and doing a podcast like you and I are now?

Josh King:

Yes, very much changed, partly because of the pandemic. Partly because the book industry has changed. Independent bookstores have done nicely, but the real emphasis is on doing things that you can do remotely, and that's media. It's a lot of television I've done for my new book, A Shot Saved The World, different stations, national and otherwise, NPR and stuff. So there isn't as much of an emphasis on speeches. But I actually, frankly, I really love them. So I am doing a bunch of them over the next few weeks, both locally.

Josh King:

I'm in New Jersey, in the New York area. I'm going up to Boston and doing some stuff. So I do enjoy it. I frankly love just meeting people and getting good ideas, the back and forth about my new book. But in general, my previous work, I really love it. Even if a handful of people come, 20, 30 people come, I love the exchange of ideas. I'm a little bit unusual, but yeah, as an industry, the book publishing industry doesn't emphasize those tours as traditional tours like they used to.

Greg Zuckerman:

Let's get into the process for this book. You mentioned that you're in New Jersey now. I mean, you called The Man Who Solved The Market, passion project. The shot for you really began as a project for you while you were cut off from the Wall Street Journal newsroom, working out of your basement. When did you decide that you needed to start on your next book from the prior book tour, and why focus on a vaccine everyone was hoping for, but at the time you started researching was by no means guaranteed?

Josh King:

Yeah, it's a good question. My sons, I remember specifically telling me not to do this book. That's part of why I did it. I was still recovering from The Man Who Solved The Market. Jim Simons is the most secretive and his people most secretive. Traders, most secretive firm that Wall Street's ever seen. So to get inside there and get people to talk to me was a real difficult challenge. It was emotionally draining. And so, I needed to recover.

Josh King:

But here we were at... My book came out the end of 2019. As you said, I was flying around. I was in London doing some speeches in January 2020 and going to see some soccer matches with my sons who are big fans. And then, you come back and by March, we're all locked down. Yes, I was deep in my basement. Basically, I embraced the vaccine chase. Okay. What got me really excited or fascinated was I kept hearing about Moderna. I had never heard of Moderna. I don't know about you.

Greg Zuckerman:

I don't know. I mean, most of our audience probably hadn't. Those who knew about them in the world of biotech were skeptical about Moderna, most of them. So to the extent that you knew them, you suspected them. There was suspicion about them. There were people that raised comparisons to Theranos. I don't buy into those comparisons, and obviously, in hindsight, they proved faulty and unfair. But people compared Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, with Elizabeth Holmes. There are a lot of similarities. I can get into them.

Greg Zuckerman:

There was justification for concern, I would argue. But here I was in my basement, locked down, doing work for the Wall Street Journal, looking for something of a distraction, and frankly, some hope. Here I was starting to write about Moderna, this unusual, unlikely company. And they're the ones who are going to come up with a vaccine or among those to save us? It didn't seem likely. You would have thought it'd be the biggest vaccine makers.

Greg Zuckerman:

And then, frankly, there are similarities to all my work. So The Man That Solved The Market, it should have been Jim Simons and these scientists and mathematicians who have the best trading record in history. It should have been people who actually care about trading and business and investing, and they don't. So I really grabbed onto that theme and it gave me hope that these people were working hard on a vaccine and I want to track them and chronicle their efforts along the way.

Josh King:

I mean, both your journalism and your long form writing are known for their exhaustive research methods. When you and I talked last, you told us about how you visited the childhood home in Newton of Jim Simons and used pictures of it to try to get him to talk to you. Moderna also, in my hometown of Boston, did your process have to change to accommodate the pandemic? And were you able to accomplish this from home and get people to say, "Hey, let's get on a zoom call and I'll tell you everything"?

Josh King:

I've heard in one of your podcasts that, at least from a sourcing standpoint, people were free and easy with everything that they had.

Greg Zuckerman:

In some ways, it was a lot easier than The Man That Solved The Market, or my past work, writing about finance. In some ways, it was a lot harder. It was a lot easier because people in the world of science love to dish and they don't do the whole off the record, on background, Greg, let me... No, they just talk, generally speaking, and they will critique each other. That's the scientific process, in some ways.

Greg Zuckerman:

There are characters in my book who are outright cruel to each other publicly. There's a guy at Oxford University, Adrian Hill who's known for just getting up in conferences and just ripping into the work of colleagues and other scientists. Some people say, "Greg, that's just how it is in our world, and that's how you get to effective drugs and vaccines. The only way we could do that is through people being very critical of each other."

Greg Zuckerman:

As a result, they were more likely to talk to me. Yeah, they didn't do the whole, "I'm a hedge funds and I'm not allowed to talk," kind of thing. The flip side is that I love getting out there and talking to people and setting a scene and experiencing, and that's part of the joy of writing a book. At the Wall Street Journal, where I am day to day, there's just not as much opportunity, unfortunately. We're writing a newspaper. There's not as much opportunity to spend weeks traveling and meeting people, and getting out there for my book.

Greg Zuckerman:

The Frackers, I went to little towns in Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas, and it was such a joy to meet people who aren't like myself and get that perspective. So for this one, I was locked down and I had to get inside beyond tech. I had to talk to people that went to school with Ugur Sahin, the CEO, and grew up with him and started the company with him, and here I was in my little basement office. So that was a challenge. Same thing with Oxford University.

Greg Zuckerman:

But enough persistence and knocking on enough doors, or as it is, calling people, reaching out to people, you get to enough people. But that took a little while.

Josh King:

The book begins, this cast of characters that make up the drama of the next 340 or so pages of the story. One or two of them have become household names like Dr. Anthony Fauci. But the rest, and you've mentioned some of them already, were and remain out of the limelight. How were you able to actually identify the people working behind the scenes and get access to them during a time when many were working 18 or more hours a day on their main job, which is to roll out this vaccine?

Greg Zuckerman:

Yeah, it's a good question. I really did not want to interfere with their work. Their work is much more important than mine. They're actually saving lives. So I was conscious of that. But I also think that talking to me, in some ways, was a real enjoyable distraction for some of these scientists who changed the world. They realized they were part of something historic and they wanted to share their thoughts about early work within Moderna, within and BioNTech, within some of these efforts that I write about, that hasn't been acknowledged.

Greg Zuckerman:

Frankly, that was a challenge too, because people on the outside, the scientific world, the academics, the government scientists, they're a little dismissive, frankly, of the work that's done in private industry, within the companies that I write about, Novavax, and BioNTech, and Moderna. They say, "Well, yeah." Then they figure it out delivery, which is basically getting mRNA into the cells, into the right place, making sure that it gets there and is jumping ahead.

Greg Zuckerman:

But mRNA, this vaccine has changed everything. It's encased in what they call lipid nanoparticles. It's fatty substance and it needs to be encased and that gets you into the cell. But people on the outside are like, "Well, yeah, they came up with some lipid nanoparticle." But to me, I said, "Well, wait, hold on a second. Somebody must have been responsible for that breakthrough, somebody within Moderna. Who was that person?

Greg Zuckerman:

Quite honestly, the senior people didn't always know. It had been done maybe years earlier. It wasn't a high profile scientist within the company. So that took some research. But my instincts were that there was work, breakthrough work, that has saved lives, that hadn't been focused on, and that was my goal, to really... My book is really about, in some ways, that the average scientists within a company, within a government agency, somewhere who has done breakthrough work, that hasn't really been properly acknowledged.

Josh King:

The story that you've laid out, put in a timeline, really, it could have started in 1961 with the discovery of mRNA, or even a whole lot earlier in 1869 with DNA. Why instead did you decide to begin the same year that you started investing your bar mitzvah money into low PE stocks?

Greg Zuckerman:

I really focused on HIV early on, because the chase for an HIV vaccine, I found fascinating, and there are a lot of parallels. I, as a layman, I was struck by how many people said, "Well, we learned this with HIV, and yes, we're working on COVID, but we're using some of the same tools that we did for the AIDS vaccine." I'm like, "Wait, AIDS vaccine? We haven't found one yet. That was an utter and absolute failure." People are like, "No, no, no, Greg, yeah, we don't have a vaccine yet, but we learned so much about the immune system, about how to conduct trials, about this approach. It's called the adenovirus approach, which I write about in my book, which eventually has led to effective vaccines.

Greg Zuckerman:

That's the J and J vaccine. That's the AstraZeneca vaccine. So for me, I was just fascinated by how you got to trace it back to that era with HIV. But also, frankly, there are a lot of same characters. I mean, you talk about Fauci. He was a huge presence in the chase for HIV vaccine. A lot of the same people are. It's almost like they'd gotten the band back together. The same thing with mRNA.

Greg Zuckerman:

So I go back to really work by this guy, Jonn Wolff, in the late 1980s at University of Wisconsin. He was just a fascinating individual. Yeah, he, in some ways, I think is a pioneer who hasn't been acknowledged for his work on mRNA, and he didn't figure it out. In some ways, it's a bit like a relay race where he and others run a lap or two and make progress and feeling good about themselves, and then they stumble and fall and they barely pass the baton to the next group and they pick it up from there.

Greg Zuckerman:

I find that process fascinating, different characters. It's important to acknowledge that there's no Eureka moments when it comes to this stuff. And you need to know a little bit of the history. So that's why I go back that far.

Josh King:

Talking about history, HIV through therapeutics and other preventative treatments makes that virus not the scourge that it once was, but it's still doesn't have a vaccine for it. How did issues with places like Microgenesis and money impact how people like Dr. Fauci and others had looked at upstarts like Moderna, initially?

Greg Zuckerman:

My book's about science, obviously, but it's also about money and it's about financing, and it's about Wall Street. It's about entrepreneurs. It's about attracting the right amount of financing. I mean, biotech world, as we all know, it's a fascinating world, a lot of home runs and strikeouts. The ability to raise money is just as important as the science in the labs. And frankly, we're jumping ahead a little bit, but yes, the COVID vaccines, I would argue are modern science's greatest achievement.

Greg Zuckerman:

But they also may be modern finances' greatest achievement. I'll talk about it later. I'd like to get into it. But were it not for Wall Street writing big checks at the right time, Moderna would not have been able to develop and manufacture these vaccines. So yes, I go back, when it comes to HIV, and I talked about this company, Microgenesis, which at one point was in the lead, and it was a biotech company and just a really interesting upstart. They were raising money and they ran out of money. The point being that, that financing is just as important as the science.

Josh King:

You said that, I think at some point, "I write the same story, book after book, of unexpected and unlikely people triumphing over seemingly impossible odds." A Shot To Save The World, Wall Street comes across, really, as one of the unsung heroes of the success. Has the reaction to that been surprising from your readers?

Greg Zuckerman:

Yeah. Listen, most people instinctively have a negative view of both big pharma, little pharma, medium pharma, and Wall Street. No one really thinks about the fact that for years venture capital firms, sovereign wealth firms, individual investors are plowing money into some of these companies I write about, Moderna, Novavax, BioNTech, with which is the hope, the hope of profits down the road.

Greg Zuckerman:

Frankly, we're the only country that has that ecosystem. At the Wall Street Journal, I'm a big believer in capitalism. It's not the ideal system, but it's the best one we've got. I've talked to the CEOs, and executives, and then scientists within these companies, who are many times, foreign born, and they all say, "Without American investors, there's no way these vaccines could have been produced."

Greg Zuckerman:

So yeah, Wall Street, I do believe should get some credit, as should big pharma. It's not to say that people like me shouldn't scrutinize both. There are mistakes that are made and there are bad people in every industry, for sure. But let's give credit where credit's due.

Josh King:

Let's give credit where credit is due. We're going to dive into a lot of these players in A Shot To Save The World, after the break. Greg Zuckerman and I will continue the conversation about his new book, coming up right after this.

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Josh King:

Welcome back. Before the break, Greg Zuckerman and I were discussing the process leading up to his most recent book, A Shot To Save The World. Checking in on the subject of one of his prior books, Greg, as information about a possible vaccine spread in 2020, most of us were just trying to access our biology one-on-one memories about DNA and RNA, while you're driving deep into the research. Can you explain, like we're all five years old, what makes mRNA both an appealing, but also an illusive agent for the delivery of this vaccine?

Greg Zuckerman:

I can because it's easy for me because I'm a layman myself. And so, like Michael Scott, half the time, I asked the scientists to dumb it down for me. So yes-

Josh King:

So you're kind of a big deal, just like Michael Scott.

Greg Zuckerman:

In my own mind, yes. Yes, mRNA is a molecule. We all have it inside of us and we depend on it. mRNA carries the instructions from DNA to the part of the cell where proteins are created, proteins that keep us alive. DNA can't do it itself. DNA needs to hand the message, the instructions, over to mRNA. mRNA has a name, messenger, because it is that messenger. It's valuable and it's also very unstable. It gets chopped up within moments by the cells enzymes, such that it's really short lived and yet valuable.

Greg Zuckerman:

People always, in the world of science, they always had this dream, "Well, geez. If mRNA can make proteins, can tell the cell to create certain proteins, what if we created mRNA synthetically in the lab and put it in a vaccine or in a drug? Couldn't we tell the body to create any protein we want?" Why is that important? Because then you could create any kind of drug or vaccine that you wanted. It was always like this holy grail, "Oh, yes. Someday, what if we could do it?"

Greg Zuckerman:

But then most scientists said, "Well, yeah, but who wants to make a big bet on mRNA?" As I said earlier, it's short lived. It gets chopped up. It's very unstable. And also, the body's immune system has defenses against it. It recognizes mRNA, and it's on the lookout for mRNA, and it doesn't want it to invade the body. So it was one of these things like it was always a dream of scientists to create a drug or a vaccine based on mRNA, again, because then you could tell the body to make anything.

Greg Zuckerman:

You could teach it to create any kind of protein. Why is that important? Because a vaccine is an education. You're teaching the body, the body's immune system, to recognize some pathogens, some virus, something that then it could experience in the future. So if you can teach the body to create a certain protein, let's say cancer, and that's what Ugur Sahin and BioNTech was doing. "Well, I'm going to use mRNA. I'm going to tell the body to create a certain cancer protein to educate the immune system, 'Ah, whenever you see that, actually, that protein in the future, we're going to go destroy it. We're going to go fight it off'"

Greg Zuckerman:

The same thing with viruses and other pathogens. So it was always the dream, was always the hope, to create mRNA in the lab as part of a drug or a vaccine. But most people didn't want to waste too much time on it. Then there were the stubborn scientists that I write about in my book who ignore the conventional wisdom.

Josh King:

Yeah. Let's get into some of those stubborn scientists. I mean, the elusiveness of the mRNA molecule turned so many away from focusing on it. But some of the zealots, they marched on, like Katalin Kariko, the Hungarian-born researcher. It's a completely different world, but she reminded me of some of the drillers from The Frackers. Did you see that comparison? How did her steadfast belief in the mRNA molecule provide the infrastructure for several vaccines, including the one from BioNTech where I presume she was finally rewarded for her work?

Greg Zuckerman:

I think it's a great comparison because, the same thing, where people in America and everywhere, geologists, always said, "Well, yeah, there's a lot of oil and gas in Shale. It's just this rock deep down below the surface. We all know there's a lot of oil and gas in there, but don't waste your time actually trying to get it out. It's too deep. It's so expensive to get it out." And a few stubborn, persistent wildcatters, frackers, I call them, said, "We're going to ignore the conventionalism."

Greg Zuckerman:

Same kind of thing here, where the conventional wisdom is don't waste your time on mRNA. It's unstable. It doesn't last long, yada yada." And Katie Kariko, this scientists at UPenn for many years, with her partner, Drew Weissman, and others I write about, they ignore that conventional wisdom and they proved the skeptics wrong. But it took years of stubborn persistence.

Greg Zuckerman:

Basically, what Kariko and Weissman did was figure out that if you just tweak the chemical basis of mRNA... There are nucleosides that make up the backbone of this thing. If you just make a couple of tweaks, [inaudible 00:30:52] something called uridine, you switch it for pseudouridine, you could actually get mRNA into the body cells and avoid the immune system's defenses. Then once you're in the cells, you can deliver instructions to the body cells.

Greg Zuckerman:

It was groundbreaking stuff and it took them years, and she overcame so much. I mean, her colleagues, her bosses at UPenn, people in the industry, they mocked her. They discouraged her. Weissman too. Even after they wrote these groundbreaking papers, they couldn't raise money. They couldn't get any headway in terms of starting a company to actually make a drug or a therapeutic. Frankly, their work was overlooked and forgotten.

Greg Zuckerman:

It took some scientists I write about in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who eventually led to Moderna, who rediscovered this paper. It's almost like the Rosetta stone had been buried and then they were like, "Wait, hold on a second here. Let's dig this thing up again and use it." I think it's important to understand that like Katie Kariko and Weissman, as important as their work was, it didn't lead to anything. We needed other people to pick up that baton and go back to running.

Greg Zuckerman:

So there are a lot of parallels with these stubborn people I write about. I do have an affinity for people who believe in themselves or have an approach that the conventional wisdom dismisses and they overcome all kinds of odds. I think there are a lot of life lessons we can from there.

Josh King:

Kariko and Weissman are what makes these stories so human, despite it being very complex and scientific. You introduce every new character with an intricate level of descriptive detail and describe in many ways the banal activities behind major scientific breakthroughs, like the scramble for access to a copier or a four-hour cup of coffee between colleagues. Why is knowing the people central for us to understand the story of this very complex scientific breakthrough?

Greg Zuckerman:

I do it for a few reasons. Partly, my strategy in my writing is a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In other words, this is intricate complex biology and vaccines and therapeutics, and I want it to be also entertaining. If you're going to invest hours in a book of mine, and the money in a book of mine, I want you to both be educated, but also entertained. It should be a fun read too. That's what I do with all my writing.

Greg Zuckerman:

I mean, I wrote about CDO contracts and CDS derivatives in my first book, and geology and fracking in the second, and algorithms in the third. So it should be a fun read at the same time. But also, I do it because I don't think the human side of science has been written about enough. And these are fascinating characters in their own right, who are competitive, and jealous, and envious, and neurotic, and ambitious, and resilient, and persistent. And we can learn all kinds of lessons, I think, while being entertained.

Greg Zuckerman:

So the pressures that they feel to raise money, I mean, money kept coming through throughout my research. I frankly hadn't been aware of it. The woman who needs a lab, the post-doc who's got pressures about their career. They've got to get a paper... They're looking over their back. Someone else is running the same kind of paper. They hear about somebody in Germany doing the same kind of thing. I write about it over and over again in my book.

Greg Zuckerman:

Listen, we all have some of that in our own lives. I'm in a competitive business. We all do. All your listeners are. But I think it's important that people understand the same kind of things and the emotions also are very prevalent within the world of science.

Josh King:

Let's talk about the world and emotions of Stephane Bancel at Moderna. At the time of this recording, Moderna's vaccine for children is still pending approval. And some have reported that the holdup is due to additional requirements the government is asking for them, that have really little to do with the efficacy or safety of the dosage. What did you find concerning about the friction put on Moderna's progress by Operation Warp Speed, despite the company was using Wall Street and not the government for funding?

Greg Zuckerman:

First, let's talk about Bancel and his company, because they're quite unusual, and unique, and quirky in their own right. Basically, Stephane Bancel is not a scientist. He's a Harvard MBA grad, an engineer. He had this vision. He believes in mRNA. He had to convince others, and he was very persuasive guy. He raised billions and billions over the years, and people were very envious and jealous within the world of biotech. How is this guy, this outsider, able to convince so many people?

Greg Zuckerman:

Moderna was a very secretive company and people were suspicious. People made accusations, suggesting maybe a Theranos kind of situation was going on. His own people, former employees, were critical of him. "He's a very difficult boss often, high expectations." People collapsed in the office, outside of the office. I write about it in the book, at home, from exhaustion, trying to keep up with Bancel. He fired lots of people.

Greg Zuckerman:

But to his credit, he had this vision. He believed and he told his people, "Hey, someday, we're going to be the ones that step up in a crisis to save lives." And he persisted. So here they are, the government [inaudible 00:35:52], they create an effective vaccine and they don't have enough money to produce it. And Bancel, this ultimate salesman, he goes and tries to sell the effort to the government, to Merck, to foundations like the Gates Foundation, trying to raise money, trying to get a partner. And no one wanted to work with them.

Greg Zuckerman:

We're talking about May 2020, and they're apoplectic. There are despondent people within the company. Here they are, can imagine that they developed what they think is an effective vaccine, but they don't have money to produce it. You're right, at that point, the government early on, Warp Speed was a great idea. It's a lot of good. We can get into it if you want. But its first bet was not on Moderna. It was on the Oxford AstraZeneca efforts.

Greg Zuckerman:

That forced, eventually, it forced Bancel to turn to Wall Street, and turn to Morgan Stanley, in particular. And they raised all kinds of money. Bancel told his people, "Take this money and go, go, go, start spending, spending." And they did produce these vaccines. There was a lot more drama behind the scenes than I had expected. I mean, we were very close to not having Moderna vaccine. We were very close to not having a Pfizer vaccine.

Greg Zuckerman:

I mean, BioNTech went to Pfizer, Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech, went to the senior executive, Phil Dormitzer at Pfizer early on in 2020 and said, "Hey, let's work on a vaccine together for this new Coronavirus." Dormitzer's like, "Yeah, I don't think so. Don't waste your time. These things dissipate." So I don't think we're appreciative enough of how easy it could it be that we wouldn't have either of these vaccines.

Josh King:

I mean, for the most part, Greg, the US government, despite unprecedented levels of monetary support, really allowed the free market to develop the weapons to combat the pandemic. In addition to the majority of the people in your book who laid the groundwork like Maurice Hilleman, or developed the shot, all seem to embody, in some ways, the rugged individualism that the Western world cherishes.

Josh King:

On the other hand, combating the pandemic was the most effective in collective or state-dominated countries. Why is that dichotomy that you wanted to show in the book play out?

Greg Zuckerman:

Yeah, that's exactly right. When it comes to preparing for the pandemic, reacting to the pandemic, we were awful, and a lot of lessons to be learned. Even the rollout early on was not the smoothest it could have been. So when it comes to discovery, when it comes to scientific advances, I think you do need maybe this rugged individualism or at least stubborn scientists, resilient, and persistent.

Greg Zuckerman:

But when it comes to public health, we need both private and public sectors to work together. They did. They really did for the vaccines. NIH worked closely with Moderna. There was the operation speed money, which was very crucial for a lot of the efforts. There were other resources. There were all kinds of resources that the Operation Warp Speed helped provide for the different vaccine efforts in terms of manufacturing, et cetera. But everything else, we were hobbled by a lack of cooperation, by skepticism on the part of citizens.

Greg Zuckerman:

It's very discouraging for the scientists I talked to, who worked on these vaccines, to see how many people are still wary of them. Yeah, there are lessons I think that can be learned from other countries where people did defer to scientific leaders, experts. And in here, we treat everyone with suspicion. That's America. There's a lot of great things about our country, that this rugged individual, and like you said, and this whole DIY, I can do it myself, I can figure it out, I can ignore the experts, that works sometimes. But it often doesn't.

Josh King:

I mean, you wrote the Bancel is now focused on healing Moderna from the experience that pushed the limits of both the humans and technology at the firm. That doesn't seem to be an issue for Ugur Sahin, the co-founder of BioNTech, who pivoted his life work from defeating cancer to focusing on COVID. Sahin has rewarded himself this daily 30-minute walk for his vaccine success and got back to working. How did Sahin's cancer experience reflect how different disciplines were leveraged to meet the growing COVID pandemic?

Greg Zuckerman:

Yeah. Well, to address your first point, that's a really good observation, that these companies have reacted in very different ways to the experience of the past year. Bancel and Moderna didn't have a partner. They worked with the government, that's true, NIH, but they didn't have somebody like a Pfizer. And they tried. They reached out to Merck and Merck was an interested, so they had to do it on their own. And as a result, they're overwhelmed.

Greg Zuckerman:

Some people would say, "Well, yeah, but they're billionaires now and they own a lot of stock. So how much sympathy can I have with these people? It's big pharma." But I don't feel that way. I have talked to these people and they're dedicated. People dealing with cancer stage four cancer keep coming into the office. There's a person I write about in my book, Juan Andres, who is the head of manufacturing, who beats himself up on a daily basis because he feels they could have done more, they could have produced more vaccines and reacted quicker.

Greg Zuckerman:

They're disappointed in themselves. As you say, they're emotionally shot, a lot of these people, because they've been going to all out because they are relatively small company and they've had to... It's been very difficult for them. That's the goal of some of the top executives at Moderna this year, to comfort and to ease their pain, and to get to people back to normal. These people have really been working without a break.

Greg Zuckerman:

Whereas, the BioNTech people, because they had this partner in Pfizer, they have been much less psychologically damaged. If anything, it's been an uplifting experience, both helping people, but having... Now they've got billions of profits that they're plowing into new areas like cancer and other kinds of areas. Just like we're able to turn on our immune system, maybe we could turn it off with things like MS or Lupus, something that.

Greg Zuckerman:

So, as you suggest, Ugur Sahin is not... What's fascinating is that he's not an mRNA guy. He's not an infectious disease guy. His whole life is dedicated to cancer, cancer research. And frankly, he hasn't made that much progress there. mRNA was one method he was using to try to address cancer, and they haven't proved it yet. And yet, they made enough progress with mRNA that they were able to turn on a dime early, January 2020, and produce these vaccines.

Greg Zuckerman:

But in some ways, this is just the first chapter in a long book for him, hopefully, where now he can take these billions and finally make progress on cancer, which is his original goal.

Josh King:

Talking about the long books, still to come, you were telling us the story of how, in the days of HIV, vaccine research was viewed as a dead end and not worth the effort or focus. There is even the example of HIV researchers hiding their work from their superiors. Why was that? And do you think the industry is now going to change, not just with the COVID-19 success, but Moderna's growth as a vaccine-specific company?

Greg Zuckerman:

Yeah, I do think it's changed. Yeah. Historically, vaccines were a loser business. Yeah, they got a lot of publicity and people like Albert Sabin and others are household names. But the average vaccine, until last year, took 10 years to develop. The fastest one ever was four years, mumps. Time and time again, I write about researchers making progress on vaccine shots for things like MERS, and the first coronavirus SARS, things like Zika, et cetera.

Greg Zuckerman:

Then they peter out, they dissipate. They've spent all this time working and money spent, devoted to these vaccines. And then we don't even need them anymore, and it's just not a profitable business. Also, there's just so much you can charge for a vaccine, whereas a drug, you can charge more. Vaccines are given once in a blue moon, whereas Statin or something is a daily medicine.

Greg Zuckerman:

So, historically, no one really wanted to go all out in vaccines when it comes to in the pharma business. That's partly why HIV vaccine was left to both government researchers, but also some of the upstarts that I write about in my book. So vaccines were not viewed as a really promising area until this past year. Now, Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, the stocks have soared. Even Novavax. Novavax is going to have a vaccine soon, but the stock has gone from like three to over 200 over the past year and a half or so.

Greg Zuckerman:

So I do think that we've opened up the money and the resources and the interest for a new era for vaccines, which is wonderful for us all. Again, these researchers are now pivoting to all kinds of new areas that could benefit society. I don't want to say I'm confident, because, historically, mRNA and some of these other methods haven't made much progress with drugs and with vaccines, partly because you needed to target certain parts of the body, and it's hard to do that. I think they can maybe overcome these obstacles. So I'm optimistic.

Josh King:

As we wrap up, I mean the week that we're recording this is the hubbub around Aaron Rodgers and the comments that he made earlier that he had been immunized, and the way this is dividing so many other issues, people on either side. But I've heard some of your conversations about how you do want to reassure people that, look, this is not an overnight thing. This is actually decades in the making. What do you make of where our culture is divided down the middle, or in Scotland at COP26, thinking about how to save the world from an even bigger problem, climate change, are you optimistic that we can get over this distrust of one another?

Greg Zuckerman:

From my book, The Frackers, I said I traveled all over the country and I got to know people who are very unlike me. I'm an East Coast guy. My wife's from LA, so I guess we're two coasts, whatever. One needs to. We don't have enough opportunity to meet other types of people today, sadly. I remember once I was at a breakfast, and Michael Bloomberg made a really interesting point about why there's... This was years ago, but why in Washington DC there is such divisiveness and anger and bipartisanship.

Greg Zuckerman:

He made an interesting point that part of it is because transportation has improved so much in our country, meaning that people, Congress people go home on Fridays to see their constituents, go to their families, et cetera, as opposed to having to be stuck in Washington and grabbing a beer with each other, grabbing a cup of coffee, having a meal, getting to know each other. Yes, that's the case today as well. With every topic of importance, everything is just divided and people are unlikely to listen to each other and to form opinions maybe that they could have been wrong and they're open to others.

Greg Zuckerman:

So am I optimistic? I'm really not, sadly. But I guess I was, though, reassured that we still have these remarkable people in America, often researchers, entrepreneurs, willing to take big ideas and embrace them and try to change the world. When you talk about climate change, maybe we're not going to all come to some agreement, but maybe the solution will come from some lab somewhere in America, some overlooked approach by some stubborn scientist who right now is being dismissed, but has a solution.

Greg Zuckerman:

Maybe it's extracting carbon from the air or something like that. That's where I'm most optimistic, in the entrepreneurs, in the innovators, in the scientist. My research for my book has reassured me about those individuals.

Josh King:

I mean, so then let's end this podcast, Greg, the same way that we ended the last time you and I chatted about your prior book. I know that you've expressed interest in General Gustave F. Perna and the others that you are not able cover in this book. Have you begun to think about the topic of your next book, and is a follow-up that looks at Operation Warp Speed in the efforts to disseminate the vaccine across the planet perhaps on the table?

Greg Zuckerman:

It's interesting. I have thought about digging into some of those issues a little bit more. I have an idea, which would probably be more a really good story for the journal that I'm very excited about. But first I want to let people know about this story, so I'm going to focus on this for a little while. Hopefully people enjoy A Shot To Save The World and learn the life lessons that I did. I mean, I do these books, in some ways, I'm selfish. I like to learn from really fascinating, smart, quirky individuals.

Greg Zuckerman:

There are life lessons that can be learned. There's inspiration I got from their innovations and just their stubbornness, their self-confidence, and their persistence. So it's something that I took from it and hopefully people do as well.

Josh King:

Well, if you keep your pace up, we'll see you in two years' time, November 2023, for whatever comes next from Gregory Zuckerman. Thanks so much for joining us inside the ICE House.

Greg Zuckerman:

That was a lot of fun. Thank you for having me.

Josh King:

That's our conversation for this week. Our guest was Gregory Zuckerman, special writer at the Wall Street Journal and the author of A Shot To Save The World: The Inside Story Of The Life Or Death Race For A COVID-19 Vaccine. If you like what you heard, please rate us on iTunes so other folks know where to find us. If you've got a comment or a question you'd like one of our experts to tackle on a future show, email us at [email protected] or tweet at us at ICEHousePodcast.

Josh King:

Our show is produced by Pete Asch, with production assistance from Stefan [inaudible 00:49:04] and Ian Wolff. I'm Josh King, your host, signing off from the library of the New York Stock Exchange. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.

Speaker 1:

The information contained in this podcast was obtained in part from publicly available sources and not independently verified. Neither ICE nor its affiliates make any representations or warranties expressed or implied as to the accuracy or completeness of the information and do not sponsor approve or endorse any of the content area, all of which is presented solely for informational and educational purposes.

Speaker 1:

Nothing herein constitutes an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy any security, or a recommendation of any security or trading practice. Some portions of the preceding conversation may have been edited for the purpose of mental clarity.

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Information contained in this podcast was obtained in part from publicly available sources, and not independently verified. Neither ICE nor its affiliates make any representations or warranties, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the information and do not sponsor, approve, or endorse any of the content herein, all of which is presented solely for informational and educational purposes. Nothing herein constitutes an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy any security, or a recommendation of any security or trading practice.