The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is shown at a vaccine clinic in Toronto, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is shown at a vaccine clinic in Toronto, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Biotech: Is it science or sorcery?

Submitted by Robert M. Macrae

COVID-19 is a highly contagious viral disease causing the current global pandemic. In less than a year it has infected over 100 million, killed over two million, and crippled unprepared economies incalculably.

COVID-19 has forced scientists to intensify viral research. Viruses are tiny, invisible under the most powerful light microscopes. Unlike living organisms, viruses are not composed of cells. They do not respire, reproduce, or grow. Viruses are products of life, non-living particles: strands of genetic material enveloped in protein sheaths.

Viruses cause diseases such as influenza, polio, and certain cancers. Virology advanced after deciphering the genetic code. Scientists learned how DNA and RNA record the sequence and assemble amino acids into specific proteins. Proteins, coded by DNA, regulate all life. Cracking the genetic code opened the door to biotechnology.

Genetic sequencing allows us to read DNA blueprints. Genetic sequencing has taken a quantum leap during the pandemic. During the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, the Ontario Ministry of Health had only one technician able to genetically sequence SARS samples. The method was slow, clunky and expensive. Over the past year, scientists have devised rapid tests to confirm COVID-19 in minutes, simply, accurately and inexpensively.

Viral genetic sequencing requires isolating a virus, less than one millionth of a metre long, from a nose swab. Comparably, it makes finding a needle in a haystack as easy as finding an elephant in the living room. The viral RNA is then extracted and its sequence is read to confirm the RNA is from a COVID-19 virus and not from the patient or other organisms inhabiting the sample. Genetic sequencing can differentiate strains of COVID-19 – variants from the UK, South Africa, Brazil or Nigeria. Until recently, this was science fiction.

Pandemic-driven strides in biotechnology haven’t stopped with advances in genetic sequencing. Developing a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA in less than a year is a leap comparable to switching from biplanes to jet aircraft within a week. Vaccines have been around since the late 1700s when Edward Jenner injected fluid from cowpox blisters into James Phipps, enabling Phipps’s immune system to synthesize antibodies against smallpox.

Until the current pandemic, we’ve been manufacturing vaccines using Jenner’s technique with either viruses similar to the ones that cause disease or denatured disease-causing viruses. Either way, it would have required years to culture sufficient viruses to manufacture enough vaccine to inoculate all of humanity against COVID-19.

Now, in seconds, we can mass produce fragments of RNA identical to RNA extracted from COVID-19 viruses. If injected, our cells will follow the genetic instructions and synthesize COVID-19 proteins – not enough to cause disease, but enough for our immune systems to learn to synthesize antibodies against COVID-19. The ability to manufacture vaccines so quickly, on such a large scale, and so inexpensively was unimaginable a year ago.

In the 1980s, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau realized the enormous potential of biotechnology as an emerging economic opportunity. He formed a Canadian Crown Corporation, Allelix Biopharmaceuticals, to undertake biotechnology research just as a hundred years earlier the federal, Winnipeg-based, Cereal Research Centre led the scientific development of hardy, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties that launched the on-going success of Canadian wheat farming.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lacked Trudeau’s vision and scuttled Allelix.

But Canada had a crown pharmaceutical company, Connaught Labs, comparable to France’s Pasteur Institute and the UK’s Lister Institute, a publicly owned, not-for-profit lab to study infectious diseases, develop, and manufacture essential pharmaceuticals such as the diphtheria antitoxin and insulin. Connaught Labs could have developed and manufactured COVID vaccines in Canada for Canadians, except Mulroney scuttled it too.

Mulroney, it appears, had blind faith in the sorcery of the free market and its invisible hand without need for publicly-funded scientific research to support emerging industries or essential services. Arguably, there is a place for a regulated market economy, but COVID-19 is reminding us of the economically crippling risks of over-relying on market economics.

Experience has repeatedly proven that wise, long-term, public investment in scientific research and development is immensely beneficial to our economy, our health, and our welfare.

Robert M. Macrae us an Environmental Technology Instrcutor at Selkirk College, in Castlegar, B.C.