An honor roll of distinguished scientists from around the world was recognized for their part in the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines at the inaugural Celebration of Heroes gala.
The April 30 event was the brainchild of two well-known area executives: longtime local banker and tax attorney Doug Freeman and Zion Enterprises founder Charlie Zhang.
Zhang is known for creating the Chinese fast-casual food chain Pick Up Stix, and also founded Orange County Music and Dance, where Freeman currently serves as chief executive.
“Our nation and the world have been hit hard, and Orange County alone has had more than 500,000 cases and 6,000 deaths,” Freeman said. “But it would have been worse had it not been for the physical, mental, and financial sacrifices made by men and women in healthcare, the scientists whose knowledge, skill and tenacity helped us resume our lives, our schools and our businesses, and everyday-everywhere pandemic heroes.
“They must be honored.”
The event awarded 13 scientists and more than five dozen individuals from other fields, including doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery clerks, police officers and EMTs, at the Westin Anaheim Resort.
Local event sponsors included Irvine-based Edwards Lifesciences Corp. (NYSE: EW), UCI Health, The Samueli Foundation and Anaheim-based Wincome Hospitality.
“We are grateful for the tireless work put in every day by heroes across the globe now and especially during the initial intensity of the pandemic,” Amanda Fowler, vice president of global corporate giving at Edwards Lifesciences, told the Business Journal in a statement. “We know their work never stops.”
The 13 scientists were all involved in the effort to create—in a significantly compressed timeline—a vaccine that would greatly reduce the risk of infection and death from the COVID-19 virus.
The results of their efforts are estimated to have saved 2.2 million lives, more than 17 million in hospitalizations and nearly $900 billion in healthcare costs worldwide, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that funds healthcare grants and research.
The day before the gala, several top scientists held a press conference and panel discussion at the National Academy of Sciences at the University of California-Irvine, where they discussed the backstory of the vaccine’s development.
The vaccine was created in just 10 months, prompting many to call it the “10-month miracle.” According to Phil Felgner, Ph.D., director of the UCI’s Vaccine Research and Development Center, and one of the Celebration of Heroes award recipients, the feat was made possible by building on more than three decades of previous research on related viruses by scientists worldwide, as well as enormous funding and streamlined regulations.
For years, scientists around the world had been studying whether and how Messenger RNA, or mRNA, which was discovered in the early 1960s, could be delivered into human cells to teach the body how to make specific proteins to help the immune system prevent or treat diseases.
But no matter the delivery system, mRNA degraded quickly, before it could deliver its proteins into the cells. Felgner solved that problem in 1985 by developing the first electrically charged capsules of lipids, called Lipofectin, that provided protection by wrapping the mRNA like a bubble, which allows it to enter the cells and communicate its message. He shared this information with the scientific world at large, enabling rapid advancements in mRNA vaccine research.
In the 35 years between then and now, numerous scientists made tremendous leaps forward in mRNA technology, including Katalin Karikó, senior vice president of RNA Protein Replacement Therapies at BioNTech, and Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and director of vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medicine, who figured out how to make synthetic RNA safe for injection into cells, a huge step forward for developing RNA-based medicines.
“Then all of a sudden, we had this outbreak,” said Felgner, referring to the COVID-19’s sudden appearance in November 2019. “All this previous work and research laid the groundwork for the COVID-19 vaccine. There have been thousands of people contributing to the technology. No one person or one lab could have accomplished any of this.”
How the Vaccines Work
Conventional vaccines contain viral proteins or disabled forms of the virus itself. In contrast, the first two COVID-19 vaccines used a string of mRNA inside a lipid coat.
The vaccines made by Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna use mRNA, which instruct the cells’ machinery to produce a harmless piece of what is called the spike protein, found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.
After the protein piece is made, the cells break down the mRNA and remove it, triggering the immune system to produce antibodies and activate other immune cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection.
Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Johnson & Johnson uses traditional vaccine methods that involve adding the gene for the spike protein to a modified adenovirus.
Scientists are now looking even further into the future, when the mRNA technology that made the COVID-19 vaccine a success is applied to other diseases with, hopefully, equal success.
“There is enormous potential here,” Weissman said, adding that mRNA vaccines can be adapted to treat many issues, including cancer. Weissman has set sights on developing a single-injection therapy for sickle cell anemia using mRNA vaccines.
“mRNA is the simplest way of making a vaccine because it targets one protein so you don’t have to use the whole virus,” Jeffrey Ulmer, president of TechImmune LLC and chief scientific adviser of Immorna Biotherapeutics, said.
mRNA vaccines can be synthesized in a few days, he explained, in contrast to the more complicated biotechnology involved in producing proteins in cells. It also simplifies the manufacturing process because the same facility can be used to make RNA for different diseases, helping meet demand in the future.
Essential workers, or “everyday heroes” as Freeman puts it, were also awarded at the gala for performing crucial work at the height of the pandemic in Orange County.
Daniel Kim, a high school senior at Tesero High School, was one such honoree. Together with a group of student volunteers, Kim provided coding lessons to students without access during the pandemic.
He received a grant from the Dragon Kim Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides high school students with seed money to launch community impact projects.
“Sheltering and social distancing made this difficult,” recalls Dragon Kim Foundation Program Manager Arie Lugo, who nominated Kim for the award. “So, he and his team found a way to offer this in a hybrid manner and created a wonderful YouTube channel as well, offering free lessons to students.”
But that wasn’t all. Kim submitted a proposal to make and distribute more than 2,000 hand sanitizer bottles for families in need during the height of the pandemic.
Kim was quick to share the credit with others.
“Honorees came from a multitude of different backgrounds and occupations, and none of us could have done what we did without the help of our support networks,” said Kim, who is confirmed to attend Stanford this fall.
“In my case, I was fortunate enough to work with the Dragon Kim Foundation, without which neither the logistics nor financials would have been possible.”
“There’s not a Hero of the Pandemic who feels he or she should be here,” Freeman said. “They will tell you ‘It was just my job’ or ‘It was something I had to do’ or ‘It was my friends, colleagues and so many others that really made things happen.’ But, make no mistake, all these folks provided a gift to humanity, and they very much deserve to be recognized.”