ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Until now, Pfizer and Moderna have had a lock on the most cutting-edge vaccines against the coronavirus, the ones using mRNA. And they've refused to share what they know. But in Brazil, two scientists have formed a remarkable partnership to challenge that. NPR's Nurith Aizenman traveled to their facility in Rio de Janeiro.
PATRICIA NEVES: This is our office.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The two researchers leading this effort are Patricia Neves and Ana Paula Ano Bom. They work out of a room just big enough for their two desks pushed together. At first, they worried they wouldn't get much done because they'd have too much fun.
ANA PAULA ANO BOM: She's my best friend (laughter).
AIZENMAN: That's Ano Bom. Ever since she and Neves met in college more than 20 years ago, they've been inseparable - shopping, lunching and, most of all, just talking. This is Neves.
NEVES: About anything - science, kids, husbands.
AIZENMAN: But it's largely because of their friendship that this project came about. After college, Neves went on to become an immunologist.
NEVES: All my background was in vaccines.
AIZENMAN: And back in October of 2020, when it became clear that the mRNA vaccines that Moderna and Pfizer were developing against COVID were probably going to work, Neves got an idea. For the last several years, she'd been trying to develop a vaccine-like treatment for breast cancer that used a similar type of mRNA technology. So she thought, what if her team's technology could also be used in a COVID vaccine?
NEVES: I started saying, let's do COVID. Let's do COVID. We need to prove that our RNA works.
AIZENMAN: But to get mRNA into the human body, you need to encapsulate it in a tiny fat particle using complex methods that only a few scientists in the world have figured out. Neves' solution? Call up her bestie, Ano Bom. After college, she had gone on to become a biochemist. Ano Bom's reply is a classic saying in Rio de Janeiro.
ANO BOM: (Non-English language spoken).
AIZENMAN: It means let's go.
ANO BOM: Let's go.
AIZENMAN: Because possibly the most important quality these two friends share is a willingness to go for goals even scientists at their own institute considered farfetched.
ANO BOM: Yeah. We are innovative and, I don't know, maybe crazy (laughter).
AIZENMAN: Setting out to invent their own mRNA vaccine against COVID was a whole new level of crazy. Moderna and Pfizer didn't just have a huge head start. They're private U.S. and European companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. So far, Neves and Ano Bom have spent about $1 million. Their entire budget is 15 million. The research and manufacturing institute they work at - it's called the Bio-Manguinhos/Fiocruz Foundation - is a public entity in Brazil. But Neves says this also comes with an advantage.
NEVES: It's not for profit. We are not interested in money. To provide vaccines to whom most need, it's the main driver for us.
AIZENMAN: So if the team succeeds in making this new mRNA vaccine, they'll do something Moderna and Pfizer have balked at.
NEVES: We are interested in opening this technology.
AIZENMAN: Share the patent and the manufacturing process with vaccine makers around the world. They want this coronavirus vaccine and any future vaccines for other diseases using their mRNA technology to be made as quickly and as widely available as possible to low- and middle-income countries, countries that are normally at the back of the line when it comes to getting cutting-edge vaccines. Neves says the unequal rollout of vaccines during the pandemic made her determined to end that.
NEVES: To see people dying because of disease that already have vaccine, it's just not acceptable.
AIZENMAN: That focus also means that Neves and Ano Bom are prioritizing an approach that's particularly well-suited to countries with limited resources. To explain, Neves takes me into one of her labs...
NEVES: Yes, this is the microbiology part.
AIZENMAN: ...Where a team member is using a pipette to drop liquid ingredients into a tiny test tube, including the genetic material of some proteins found on the coronavirus.
NEVES: We will put two microliters - OK? - here in this tube.
AIZENMAN: It's pretty moving to look at it.
Neves says the process creates mRNA that works very similarly to the ones in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines but with an extra feature. This mRNA is what's called self-amplifying.
NEVES: You have some messages inside the mRNA that makes this RNA replicate itself.
AIZENMAN: You only need to put a little bit in the body, and the body takes care of making the rest. Among the benefits for lower- and middle-income countries...
NEVES: It's cheaper to produce because the doses is lower.
AIZENMAN: Ah. Like, literally, the raw material is less.
ANO BOM: Yes.
NEVES: Yes. Let's go.
AIZENMAN: Next stop on the tour...
So this is your lab.
ANO BOM: Yeah.
AIZENMAN: The facility where Ano Bom has already come up with several methods for delivering the mRNA into the body, but where the obstacles she's facing are also on display at a workstation where a team member is using a syringe to push liquid through a tiny metal sieve...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's not so easy.
AIZENMAN: ...By hand, over and over again.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. There's a machine for that.
AIZENMAN: The machine - how long would it take?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Really? Do you want to know? I think, yeah, two minutes.
AIZENMAN: Ano Bom bought the machine from an American supplier four months ago, and she's still waiting for it to reach her lab.
ANO BOM: I think bureaucracy is the reason.
AIZENMAN: Brazil's regulatory agencies aren't really set up to approve imports of equipment and supplies for fast-tracked vaccine invention. Still, Neves says the team did get a major boost last September when the World Health Organization made it a centerpiece of a new global initiative to figure out how to make mRNA vaccines and then set up hubs to teach that knowledge.
NEVES: When WHO gives you, like, a sign that you are very...
AIZENMAN: Seal of approval.
NEVES: ...Good - yes, the seal of approval - it brings the project to another level inside our institution.
AIZENMAN: So for all the delays, the team is on track to have the vaccine ready for release and manufacturing at scale within about a year and a half. Now, there are some researchers in other countries who are also trying to develop mRNA vaccines against COVID, including a team in South Africa that's trying to essentially copy Moderna's version then make the recipe completely public. But if Neves and Ano Bom succeed, theirs will be the first wholly original new mRNA vaccine that is meant to be shared with the world.
NEVES: OK, just waiting people to enter the meeting.
AIZENMAN: Back in their shared office, the pressures of their timeline are palpable as Neves starts up a video conference with specialists on quality control...
NEVES: We are trying to see if we could go fast with the studies.
AIZENMAN: ...While Ano Bom gets started on another urgent task.
ANO BOM: A presentation for tomorrow.
NEVES: Yes. And I should prepare one, too, for...
AIZENMAN: Neves and Ano Bom like to joke that as it became clear this project was turning into something really big, their husbands got excited.
NEVES: They started to say, oh, now you are going to receive money, more money.
AIZENMAN: Until they answered...
NEVES: No, no. We are not receiving any more money for this. We are just receiving more work.
AIZENMAN: But, adds Ano Bom, they wouldn't have it any other way. Our motivation, she says, is our sense of justice.
Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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