“It’s likely we’ll see another pandemic in the next 20 years”: The Toronto scientist who invented the Covid vaccine technology says we need to prepare for the next virus
Back when he was a high school student in Scarborough, Derrick Rossi predicted that a virus would someday bring the world to its knees. A few decades later, the stem cell biologist and Harvard prof discovered the modified mRNA technology that led to the creation of Moderna—and, eventually, to the world’s first two approved Covid-19 vaccines. Rossi left Moderna in 2015, but retains a significant amount of stock in the company, now worth $60 billion. And lately, he’s been advising the Canadian government on our future vaccination strategy. Here he tells Toronto Life about how he made his big discovery, and why—gulp—the next pandemic is not a matter of if but when.
You discovered modified mRNA, the scientific innovation behind both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Maybe we could start with a science-for-dummies explanation of what that is exactly
Sure. Everybody has heard of DNA and we recognize that that’s where our genetic material is, how heredity is passed. What people might not know is that DNA is an incredibly passive molecule; you need active molecules, which are the proteins. People think of proteins as something that comes in their hamburger, but they’re also the worker bees of cells, making sure that cellular life, and therefore all life, happens. MRNA is the middle man, the messenger that carries the genetic coding from the DNA so that cells know what protein to make. That’s not anything we came up with. Scientists have been aware of the mRNA molecule since the 1950s.
So what was your discovery then?
Well, this is where the story gets complicated. Our experiment was actually something different—a project focused on stem cells. As one step in that process, we were trying to figure out if it was possible to inject synthetic mRNA into cells without killing them. After a few false starts, we realized that we could do that by making some modifications, and that’s where the name Moderna comes from—modified mRNA. We completed our work and wrote a paper that was heralded in the scientific community.
And you were named on Time magazine’s list of “People Who Mattered” in 2010.
That’s right! We got quite a bit of attention. But, like I said, the larger project was about stem cells, and everyone wanted to talk about that rather than the modified mRNA. I was getting calls from Big Pharma companies asking me about stem cells, and I’m thinking, Don’t they see what’s really important here? I knew if we could manufacture mRNA, we could make cells produce whatever protein we wanted whenever the heck we wanted. And that meant we could intervene on any aspect of life, including human diseases and illness.
Were vaccines always part of the Moderna game plan?
Not when we started. Generally, vaccines aren’t a very good business model. They tend to have low profit margins, and they aren’t sold for a lot of money, since governments pay for them. Our focus out of the gate at Moderna was on genetic diseases, thousands of which have their underpinnings in a bad stretch of DNA, which makes a bad stretch of mRNA, which makes a bad stretch of proteins. I had always imagined that the first application would be addressing some rare childhood disease, and being able to help a few thousand families. But as you know, and as most of the planet knows, the first two modified mRNA products to receive emergency authorization were these two Covid vaccines—the one by Moderna and the one by Pfizer.
How are mRNA vaccines different from traditional ones?
Let’s start with how all vaccines are the same—they work by getting your immune system ready to mount a response against an invader by introducing that invader into your body in a form that your body will be able to handle. It’s almost like a training session to prepare for the real thing. With traditional vaccines, the invader is expressed by a weakened or inactivated version of the actual virus—in this case SARS-CoV-2—whereas with the mRNA vaccines, we’re injecting the body with modified mRNA that will instruct cells to create that specific protein on the viral surface. For Covid-19, that’s the spike protein we all know from images.
And does that difference make mRNA vaccines better? Faster? Safer?
In traditional vaccines, weakening or deactivating the virus takes time. We can produce synthetic mRNA much faster. Last year, for example, a lot of the world’s vaccine experts were saying there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that we were going to have a vaccine ready to go in 12 months, that it would be more like five years, two years minimum. And that whole time I’m thinking, Well, yeah, but they don’t know the new technology. Think about the traditional approach to the seasonal flu, which has always been to take a best guess at what that year’s strain will be, create a vaccine accordingly and hope for the best. With mRNA, we can wait and create a vaccine based on the strain that emerges.
You will forgive me for noting that you don’t look like a typical science guy. You have a soul patch, you seem to own a lot of rock T-shirts.
It’s funny, because I was doing a webinar with the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine the other week, and they asked me what I would have done if I hadn’t been a scientist. I said I probably would have been a rock and roller. I’m into a lot of obscure punk. I spend a lot of time digging and exploring. I quite like finding new music that I haven’t found before.
Not entirely dissimilar to your work as a scientist.
That’s true. And honestly, I knew what I wanted to do pretty early on. I took a class in molecular biology way back when I was a student at Dr. Norman Bethune High School in Scarborough, and from there I knew what I wanted to do. I have these memories of sitting around with my high school friends doing what it is that high school students do. We’d get into these deep discussion about how the world was going to end. You’d have one guy saying it was going to be an asteroid, another saying nuclear war. I was always the one who said pathogen.
Fast forward to the early weeks of 2020. Are you thinking, Well, this is it. It’s finally arrived?
Ha! Well, I wouldn’t say I saw this as an extinction event, but I was definitely paying attention to the data. Originally we had a fatality rate around two per cent, which was not Ebola level, but pretty goddamn high. I’d left Moderna in 2015 to start other biotech companies, but I still hold a large stock position, so I was hearing from from them that it looked bad. But the flip side was that this is a great application for the mRNA technology, so let’s mobilize. Which of course they did.
What about your own day to day? Were you the guy stocking up on toilet paper? Making work-from-home contingency plans?
I retired from academia a couple of years ago, so I wasn’t having to make major changes. We had planned a family trip to Africa, which we had to cancel. People were saying, “Don’t worry, just go, it’s not a big deal, this virus isn’t even in Africa yet.” But I was like, “It will be.”
And were your kids like, “Come on, Dad—why do you have to be uptight science guy?”
There was a bit of that, but it was clearly the right call. We have a house in New Hampshire that’s in the woods, totally removed, so we went there and we stayed for six months. Either my wife or myself would go to the grocery store once a week, but other than that it was total isolation. My wife is also a biologist, so everything that came into our house was squirted down or rigorously scrubbed. We came back to Boston because my daughters are back in school. And I really did have every intention of retiring two years ago, but since last winter I’ve spent pretty much every day on the phone doing interviews, radio, advocating for science. Obviously that was a major issue in America.
As a Canadian living in what was then Trump’s America, were you paying attention to our Covid response? Did you ever consider heading home?
Of course I was watching. I was pretty proud to see Canada handle it so much better than what was happening here in the U.S., though I guess it’s hard to imagine things being handled worse. I love Canada and I miss it. I haven’t been back to Toronto as much as I used to since my parents passed, and then of course in the last year I haven’t been able to get back. I am a huge Leafs fan, so in the past I’ve been that guy who flies back and forth during playoff season. I’ll be back to cheer for my team when we can do that. In terms of a Covid response, I think Canada has done a good job. Actually, I’ve been advising both the federal and Ontario governments on vaccine strategy.
It’s fair to say our rollout has been slower than we’d like. You’ve got an inside track at Moderna. Where did we go wrong?
Canada did a good job of securing doses. And Canada was able to pay for its Moderna doses upfront, which has been hugely important to getting the infrastructure in place. The current bottleneck is a manufacturing issue, and I don’t know that there’s much that can be done about that. I think the focus needs to be on creating the infrastructure for domestic production. Find a large empty building in Mississauga or Scarborough and get to work on it. It will take a while, and it might even miss most of this pandemic, but guess what?
I don’t like where you’re going here…
There is going to be another pandemic, and next time we can be prepared. Right now, billions of vaccines is a tall order. Imagine if in the future if we had production facilities in countries all over the world and we could do a billion doses in a month?
Can we go back to this next pandemic thing? Do you mean like in our lifetime? In the next 20 years?
I can’t say when exactly, but I’d say the next 20 years is likely. Just look at the recent history of epidemics like SARS, MERS. It’s one of the realities of living in a global society where people fly all over the world. And if you look at what’s happening with variants—that’s probably something we’re going to be dealing with for the next few years.
Moderna is a private company. Has your involvement made you a rich man?
I don’t really like to talk about the money part of it, but yes. I have done well.
Like, “I’m buying a fancy new sports car” well? Or “I’m buying a boat to house my fancy sports car collection” well?
Well, like I said, I don’t want to talk about this. But if you look at the current valuation of the company, it’s somewhere around $60 billion.
Okay, fair enough. Being somewhat removed now, how do you process the part you’ve played in this potentially civilization-saving science?
Are you asking if I pat myself on the shoulder? Listen, even before the pandemic, I was very proud of the success of Moderna. People used to congratulate me and say, “Aren’t you proud? You’ve achieved so much.” I used to say, “Not until we make a product that really changes people’s lives. I’ll be able to hang up my hat when we do that.” But now that that’s happened, I don’t feel like I’m finished. I’m really pleased. There has been so much loss and devastation, and vaccines are the way out of this.
Do your daughters know that Dad is a hero?
Not really. Though my daughter Lumi plays hockey, and the other day one of the hockey moms told me how her daughter was at the dinner table talking to her dad and said, “Why can’t you do something cool like Lumi’s dad?” That was kind of cool.