BOSTON — Even after leading the charge combating the worst pandemic in a century, vaccine researcher Kathrin Jansen doesn’t feel that she can relax. Another pandemic — this one based on an influenza virus — is inevitable, Jansen said at the annual STAT Summit on Tuesday.
“Before SARS-CoV-2, we had worried about pandemic flu. And just because corona came first doesn’t mean flu is just sitting there,” Jansen, who recently retired as head of vaccine R&D at Pfizer, told STAT senior writer Helen Branswell.
An influenza-based pandemic is only a matter of time, Jansen added: “The question is, does it come tomorrow or 50 years from now?”
She called for better global surveillance of viruses and communication infrastructure so that, when a new and highly transmissible or dangerous flu virus does emerge, scientists and policymakers learn about it and can respond as quickly as possible.
Jansen made the comments during a panel conversation alongside Jacqueline Miller, therapeutic area head for infectious disease at Moderna, who joined the company in May 2020 and worked to develop the company’s Covid vaccine.
Both scientists emphasized just how challenging it was to create mRNA vaccines at such a frantic pace. Balancing unprecedented speed with safety created a need to constantly reevaluate data, said Miller.
“We had some difficult conversations about the best way to do this. What’s the best way to make sure we’re seeing data before we take that next step, but keeping in mind people are dying every day,” she said. “I got pushed every day: What can you do differently?”
Branswell asked Miller and Jansen if they had any ”oh shit” moments during this time. “Only every day,” replied Miller.
Back in March 2020, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a Covid-19 vaccine would be available within 12 to 18 months. Even the scientists tasked with creating these shots were unconvinced such a timeline was possible.
“When we were first faced with the situation to develop this vaccine in 2020, my first comment was, ‘That’s crazy,’” said Jansen. But Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, told her she could use any resources she wanted to make it happen within a year. “I thought under those circumstances, we’ll give it a shot because it’s a totally different game to play,” said Jansen.
Both Miller and Jansen said that, having made the shots that provided protection to so many, there’s room for improvement and to create vaccines with more durability. “This was a product that was brought forward very quickly to address an urgent public health priority. That doesn’t mean we won’t iterate on it,” said Miller.
With time, Covid vaccines will likely be standard annual shots, similar to annual flu vaccines. “There’s hope we can improve over time and hopefully get us in a decent situation where it’s more like influenza: Every year you get your flu shot, get your Covid shot,” said Jansen. As this pandemic becomes more manageable, however, the flu, in turn, may become more like Covid.