In early January 2020, most of the world hadn’t yet awakened to the fact that life was soon to change profoundly. But Barney Graham saw a possible need coming, and set out to fill it.
Graham was deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center and chief of the viral pathogenesis laboratory. Mere days after Chinese scientists posted to an international database the genetic sequence of a new, as yet unnamed coronavirus that was causing a fast-expanding outbreak in Wuhan, Graham and his colleague Kizzmekia Corbett had designed the structure for a vaccine that later became the prototype for Moderna’s Covid-19 shot and laid the foundation for Covid vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and others.
Eleven months later, that first vaccine began to be administered, an extraordinary feat in vaccine development.
Graham had planned to retire in 2020; that didn’t happen. But on Aug. 31, his two-decade career at the NIH came to a close. STAT recently caught up with Graham to find out what comes next.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Why have I reached you at an Atlanta number?
Well, because my cellphone got dropped in the swimming pool about three years ago. I was in Atlanta and that’s where I got my [new] phone. And we’re moving to Atlanta. So it made sense for me to get a 404 number. That’s where we’re moving shortly to be near grandchildren and children.
Why did you decide to leave the Vaccine Research Center now?
Well, my wife [psychiatrist Cynthia Turner-Graham] and I made a 2020 plan in 2015. And we delayed our plan by a little over a year.
I’m 68. I finished 20, 21 years at NIH. And I was planning a different phase of my career, to use what I learned and what I know to do some other things. Not directly manage the lab anymore.
I want to spend my time trying to educate and advance some things into developing country settings that I think are important. I didn’t leave because I was mad at anybody, I can tell you that. I think working with the VRC has been the privilege of a lifetime and it’s just been a fantastic and amazing experience for me.
You said you want to spend your time on education, but also you said in developing capacity in underdeveloped countries. Can you elaborate?
There are two things, I think. Trying to help at the policy level, at the political level, where there’s obviously a lot of need to get things right. Trying to help at the level of just public citizens, where I’ve seen during this pandemic such a profound lack of understanding of biology. I want to spend some time in public education. I’ve probably given 40 webinars over the last few months just trying to help people understand the vaccine and not be scared of it. It’s just astounding to me, the status of our population in terms of understanding biology. So that’s going to be part of it.
But part of it is the overall pandemic preparedness concepts. In my way of thinking, all pandemic threats start as regional problems. A lot of times these regional problems are not commercially viable problems to solve or fight for Big Pharma. But if lower- or middle-income countries have better research infrastructure, that could lead to manufacturing now that we’ve gotten some new technologies that are more platform-based. It’s like skipping a generation of phones; you didn’t lay cable in Africa, you just went straight to cellphones.
There needs to be global resources applied to regional problems wherever they happen to be in the world. Because it is a global problem to have regional problems. And so I want to try to work with different groups to try to advocate for that, use whatever leverage I have left to try to get more of that done and try to establish more manufacturing of biologics in low- and middle-income countries.
Will you be a free agent or are you planning on working with the Carter Center or the Gates Foundation or the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) or someplace like that?
The last two years have been so exhausting that right now that I am just stopping for a minute to get a breath.
I don’t have any affiliations going forward. I might have some options. There’s a lot of different organizations and there’s a lot of academic programs and there’s various committees. Or I could be a consultant as a free agent. But there are a lot of ways I think I can get involved, and I just haven’t decided what the affiliation should be.
When I read you were retiring, I asked someone if they knew what you were doing, and that person said: ‘He’ll go into industry and make a ton of money.’ Are you going into industry?
No, I’m not planning to go to industry. I don’t want those kinds of projects.
I wouldn’t mind the ton of money, and I might do some consultation for industry, but there’s not going to be any kind of full-time deal with industry. I really want to work on this other issue.
I love bench work and I love the data that comes in and the students and the trainees, that’s all wonderful. But I don’t know how much time I have left, and I want to save some of it for my family, and some of it trying to influence the way people think about regional problems.
The speed at which Covid-19 vaccines have been developed is amazing, but there has been enormous inequity in the distribution of vaccine doses so far. We’re talking about third shots in this country and many people around the world haven’t yet had one. This speaks to what you’re talking about — the need to have production capacity in multiple parts of the world.
I feel like every group needs to be self-sufficient for their region.
With some of these new [vaccine] technologies, I think you could do that in a more global way. Not everywhere. It would take some time to build the infrastructure. It could be a 20-year goal that these kinds of things, biologics, could be made in a lot of different places. And while they’re solving the regional problems, they can be the surge capacity for pandemics.
You mean like the mRNA vaccine platform?
MRNA is not magic unless you deliver the right thing. There needs to be more than just the ability to plug a sequence into mRNA and make mRNA. Because, honestly, it has to start at a much lower level. There needs to be this building up from a technical level, so the infrastructure that’s needed to manufacture can be supported. Like a supply chain of skill sets that needs to be in place.
It’s going to take some time. I think at least 20 years.
Exactly. I think it’s a generation, which is maybe four academic generations. You need people with experience, and then an accumulation of younger people who are interested and able to do this kind of work.
And want to do it where they are?
And want to do it where they are.
Because that has been a problem, I think.
I totally agree. All those people that got trained in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early ’80s during Project SIDA and the AIDS outbreaks and all the great work they did, those Congolese investigators and young people are spread all over the world doing work because the civil war and other things made it impossible for them to work in Congo. Many of them would love to go back to Congo if there were the facilities and resources there to do the work. It’s just you have to create the incentives to be able to stay.
What has become clear during this pandemic is that some problems don’t really belong to any one entity. They don’t have a natural home; there’s nobody who is tasked with fixing them. And it seems to me that this work that you’re talking about could actually be one of those issues.
You’re right. These global issues often have a lot of analysis, a lot of committees, a lot of talking, and nobody ever does anything. And it makes you crazy after a while.
There needs to be an understanding by the politicians and the development banks about what is possible now because of the new technologies. They make a lot of things possible now that just seemed impossible even 10 years ago.
I don’t know how much leverage I have or influence I have. Actually, I’m looking forward to finding out if I have any at all. I think that I can at least see the need and see the problem and see the solution, hopefully articulated well enough that other people can see where we need to go.