Billions of dollars have been spent fighting the pandemic, with a huge proportion
of that money going towards vaccine development. Other areas of research have also gotten a big boost during the pandemic — and the results could make a huge difference to public health in the future.
Here are some of the big winners in the pandemic-inspired funding race.
mRNA Vaccines — The astounding success of both the Pfizer / BioNtech and Moderna vaccines has set the stage for the development of other highly-customizable vaccines in the future. The beauty of the vaccines is that they are basically blueprints — they use a genetic code to tell the body to build tiny molecular targets. The body’s immune system then goes to town on target practice and builds up immunity so that if a real threat — like the coronavirus — shows up, it can quickly respond.
Researchers have been working on the basic science
around mRNA vaccines for years
, but haven’t been able to get a truly big break until now. They were getting funding, but remained in the shadow of the “biotech valley of death
” — the gap between a research discovery and commercialization. Now that they’ve proven themselves in clinical trials, and been used to vaccinate millions of people — suddenly they are poised for a massive boom. With production ramping up, researchers see hope for diseases including HIV and sickle-cell anemia
Their success is a big win for drug companies (and the stock market
) but also for researchers and smaller suppliers. Specialty biotech companies that produce the nanoparticles which hold the vaccines’ genetic material have been booming, with some increasing their production 50-fold
. The authorizations, great clinical trial results, and investments in this kind of manufacturing might mean that we see more mRNA vaccines in the future.
Rapid molecular testing — Before COVID-19 a handful of companies were working on diagnostic tests for flu, sexually transmitted diseases, a boatload of other ailments. These quick, easy tests that could look for the genetic material of a virus in patient samples without needing a slow trip to the lab.
When they started seeing the reports of this new virus, many of them pivoted. Their tests could detect viruses — why not train them to detect this
virus? Suddenly, they went from being an academic exercise (also languishing in the valley of death) to investors pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into their technology. These rapid tests could make it easier to diagnose diseases in the future. For more on the boom in rapid molecular testing, read my colleague Nicole Wetsman’s excellent story from this week
— This one’s a little different from the others, but it’s also a notable new area of research that’s emerged during the pandemic. A few weeks ago, the National Institutes of Health announced a new $1.15 billion commitment
to research “long COVID.” Some people who get infected with the virus end up having symptoms that persist for months — and researchers still don’t know why.
The four-year initiative will help drive research into why this happens, who is affected, and what the long-lasting effects are, among other questions. It’s a big boost for people who suffer from long COVID and other diseases with extended recovery times — whether they’re viral or not. These kinds of symptoms are often overlooked, but, as Julia Belluz points out at Vox,
they definitely aren’t unique to COVID.
All of this money allowed scientists to start grappling with a new, emerging threat. The millions, and in some cases, billions of dollars have allowed new technologies to prove themselves. These are investments that have the potential to change how we look at older diseases that have been with us for ages, in addition to newer, emerging threats.
The question now is how we move that urgency and funding into medicine more broadly, after this particular pandemic has passed us by.
Here’s what else happened this week.