These Brazilian besties are inventing an mRNA vaccine as a gift to the world
RIO DE JANEIRO – For the last two years, Brazilian scientists Patricia Neves and Ana Paula Ano Bom have been working out of an office that's 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!
"She's my best friend!" says Ano Bom, starting to laugh.
"Yeah!" says Neves, laughing too now. Ever since the two met in college more than 20 years ago, she says, they've been inseparable: "Shopping together, having lunch" and most of all just talking. "All afternoon – about anything – husbands, kids, family."
But also, about science. And it's largely because of this friendship that the two women have been able to launch a remarkable partnership that could finally make mRNA vaccines easily available to low- and middle-income countries around the world.
The highly effective mRNA shots against COVID are the most cutting-edge vaccines against the disease. But so far private companies Pfizer and Moderna are the only ones that have succeeded in making them. And both companies have refused to share their patents and their manufacturing know-how. Now Neves and Ano Bom are determined to end the stranglehold.
The tale of how Neves and Ano Bom came to mount this challenge begins with their diverging paths after graduating from college.
Neves became an immunologist and soon joined Brazil's premier agency for vaccine research and development, called the Bio-Manguinhos Fiocruz Foundation. Shortly before the pandemic, she turned to trying to create a vaccine-like treatment for breast cancer that would use mRNA technology.
Then in October of 2020, early results suggested that the mRNA vaccines that Moderna and Pfizer were developing against COVID were probably going to work. This gave Neves an idea: What if the type of mRNA her team had been working with for the breast cancer project could also be used in a COVID vaccine?
"I started saying, 'Let's do COVID! Let's do COVID!'" recalls Neves. " 'We need to prove that our mRNA works.' "
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 had a solution: Call up her bestie Ano Bom.
After college, Ano Bom had gone on to become a biochemist and had also joined Bio-Manguinhos Fiocruz.
"I think Ana Paula is brilliant," says Neves.
In fact, Neves had already enlisted Ano Bom to work out a way to do encapsulation of mRNA for the breast cancer project.
When Neves proposed pivoting to a COVID vaccine, Ano Bom says she immediately replied with a classic saying in Rio de Janeiro: "Bora! Vam bora!"
It means, 'Let's go!'
"Yeah," says Ano Bom, cracking up. "Let's go!"
Because it turns out that possibly the most important quality these two friends share is a willingness to go for goals that even many scientists at their own institute consider far-fetched.
"Yeah," says Ano Bom, "We are innovative and – I don't know – maybe crazy."
A new level of crazy
Setting out to invent their own mRNA vaccine against COVID was arguably 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 dollars. Their entire budget is about $15 million. Bio-Manguinhos Fiocruz is a public entity in Brazil.
But Neves says the institute's nature also comes with an advantage. "It's not for profit. We are not interested in money. We are interested in opening this technology. To provide vaccines to whomever most needs them – that's the main driver for us."
So if the team succeeds in making this new mRNA vaccine, they've committed to doing something that Moderna and Pfizer have so far balked at: Share both the patent and the manufacturing process with vaccine makers around the world. They want this coronavirus vaccine – as well as 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.
These countries 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 incensed her – and bolstered her commitment to changing things.
"To see people dying because of diseases that already have vaccines," she says. "It's just not acceptable!"
An added bonus
Their particular focus also means that Neves and Ano Bom have made sure to use an approach that's well suited to countries with limited resources.
To explain, Neves takes me into one of her labs, where a team member, Rafaele Loureiro, is using a pipette to drop liquid ingredients into a tiny test tube – including the genetic material of some proteins found on the coronavirus.
"We'll put in two microliters of it," Loureiro says, ratcheting the dial on the pipette. "It's really like magic," she adds, a touch of awe in her voice.
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."
"You have some messages inside the mRNA that make this RNA replicate itself," says Neves. In other words, you only need to put a little bit in the body, and the body takes care of making the rest.
That's a boon for lower- and middle-income countries, says Neves, because it means less raw material is required. "It's cheaper to produce."
Picking up speed
The next stop on the tour is the lab where Ano Bom has already come up with several methods for delivering the mRNA for their COVID vaccine into the body. She's now comparing them against yet another method that she's effectively purchased from an American-based private company.
But the obstacles Ano Bom is facing are also on display at a work station where another team member, Danielle Cunha, is using a syringe to push liquid through a tiny metal sieve. She does this by hand – over and over again.
Cunha grimaces a bit, and notes, "there's actually a machine for doing this."
How long would the machine take on this task? "Really! Do you want to know!" Cunha answers, with a wry chuckle. "I think two minutes."
Although Ano Bom bought the machine from an American supplier four months ago, she's still waiting for it to reach her lab. Ano Bom gives an exasperated sigh. "I think bureaucracy is the reason!" she says. Brazil's regulatory agencies aren't really set up to approve imports of equipment and supplies for fast track vaccine invention. Altogether, Ano Bom estimates that the resulting delays in getting assorted equipment and materials have set them back at least ten months.
Still, Neves says the team did get a major boost last September, when the World Health Organization and several other partners made the Brazil mRNA project a centerpiece of a new global initiative. The aim is to figure out how to make mRNA vaccines and then set up hubs to teach that knowledge.
"When the WHO gives you that sign that you are very good – the seal of approval – it brings the project to another level inside our institution," says Neves. It also gives them access to technical support from WHO and the other partners, including PATH, a non-profit that provides expertise on key aspects of vaccine development.
And so, for all the delays, the Brazilian team is on track to start phase one clinical trials this year. And they're aiming to have the vaccine ready for release and manufacturing at scale within about a year and a half.
Neves and Ano Bom's effort is not entirely unique. Various researchers in other countries 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. There's also at least one private company – based in the United States – that is working on a vaccine using self-amplifying mRNA.
Still, if Neves and Ano Bom succeed, theirs will likely be the first wholly original new mRNA vaccine that is meant to be shared with the world.
Back in their joint office, the pressures of their timeline are palpable as Neves starts up a video conference with specialists on quality control. "We are trying to see if we could go fast with the study," Neves explains.
Ano Bom is tapping at her computer on another urgent task: "A presentation for tomorrow," she says. "Yeah," Patricia answers, "and I should be preparing one too!"
Neves and Ano Bom like to joke that as it became clear this project was turning into something big, their husbands got excited. "They started saying, 'Ah! Now you're going to receive money — more money,' " recalls Neves. Until the researchers had to tell the husbands, " 'No, no we are not receiving any more money for this. We are just receiving more work!' "
The two friends burst into laughter again. "Yes, only more work!" says Ano Bom.
But her expression gets serious as she quickly adds that they wouldn't have it any other way. "Our motivation," she says, "is our sense of justice."
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