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The Shot Felt ‘Round the World: What’s Next for COVID-19 Vaccines

With the rollout of new vaccines against COVID-19, an end to the pandemic is finally in sight. Even as mRNA vaccine technology opens a new frontier in medical and scientific progress around the world, the issues of distribution and trust remain major obstacles to widespread inoculation efforts. How do mRNA vaccines work in the first place? How can national leaders promote public trust in these new vaccines? And how can vaccines be distributed more quickly and more equitably, especially in countries with poor infrastructure?

Join Perry World House and renowned experts Katalin Karikó, Senior Vice President at BioNTech, the company that created the first COVID-19 vaccine, and an associate professor at Penn; Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at CHOP; and Drew Weissman, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, to discuss the origins and future of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó has been Senior Vice President at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals since 2013. She is also Adjunct Associate Professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for 24 years. She received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from University of Szeged, Hungary, in 1982. For four decades, her research has been focusing on RNA-mediated mechanisms with the ultimate goal of developing in vitro-transcribed mRNA for protein therapy.

She investigated RNA-mediated immune activation and co-discovered that nucleoside modifications suppress immunogenicity of RNA, which widened the therapeutic potentials of mRNA. She is co-inventor on mRNA-related patents for application of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA. She co-founded and from 2006-2013 served as CEO of RNARx, a company dedicated to develop nucleoside-modified mRNA for therapy. She is a founding member of the scientific planning committee for the International mRNA Health Conference, an annual non-profit meeting for advancements of mRNA technology, inaugurated in 2013.

She served as guest editor of the Molecular Therapy special issue on mRNA Therapy, in 2019. Her patent, co-invented with Drew Weissman on nucleoside-modified uridines in mRNA, is used to create the anti-SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines, BNT162b2 and mRNA-1273 by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna/NIH, respectively. She has 10 U.S. patents granted.

Paul Offit 

Paul Offit is the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as well as the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and a Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and an expert on vaccines, immunology, and virology.

He is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine that has been credited with saving hundreds of lives every day. The vaccine, RotaTeq, was recommended for universal use in infants by the CDC in 2006 and by the WHO in 2013; for this achievement Dr. Offit received the Luigi Mastroianni and William Osler Awards from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the Charles Mérieux Award from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; and was honored by Bill and Melinda Gates during the launch of their Foundation’s Living Proof Project for global health.

Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He has been a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far (HarperCollins, 2020) is his ninth book.

Drew Weissman

Drew Weissman is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. His laboratory focuses on the study of RNA and innate immune system biology and the application of these findings to vaccine research and gene therapy. There are three main projects in his laboratory. The first project began through the use of mRNA encoding antigen as a delivery system to load dendritic cells to promote broad immune responses as part of a vaccine. This project has expanded to include basic studies of RNA immunogenicity and translation and the development of applications for gene therapy.

The second project develops new HIV envelope immunogens that can induce broad responses and cross-reactive neutralizing antibodies. The third project continues previous studies that identified a protein found on DC, macrophages, and epithelial cells that binds HIV envelope with high affinity. The main focus of this project is testing whether this and related molecules function in vivo to promote HIV genital tract infection.