Progress Deferred: Lessons From mRNA Vaccine Development (Tim Hwang, 2/20/24, IFP)

One institutional reform that may have alleviated this issue would be to use mechanisms that encourage funders to make higher variance, heterodox bets against this kind of scientific consensus. This might include “golden ticket” mechanisms that allow reviewers that feel strongly about a research proposal to fund a project even against the consensus of their peers.52 Similarly, funding programs might be launched to deliberately offer “last shot” funding for potentially high-impact areas that see a period of declining funding and researcher activity.53 These might counter a natural risk-aversion that leads researchers to abandon problems too early in the face of high-profile failures, as they arguably did in the mRNA case. These mechanisms might have particular applicability in cases parallel to mRNA, where expert judgments are based more on analogies to similar problems and where the technology in question would have a major social impact if viable.

The merit of such an approach is bolstered by examining the funders that unusually did choose to fund mRNA research, even during the period in which it faced major skepticism. These organizations did so in part because they were free to prioritize more speculative, high-risk exploration. The specific reasons for this vary. Dan Wattendorf – who led the DARPA ADEPT program that funded mRNA work in the 2010s – attributes the agency’s willingness to support mRNA work to an organizational norm of providing managers like himself free rein to direct their programs.54

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was also an early supporter of mRNA vaccines, providing a $20M grant to Moderna in 201655 and later $55M to BioNTech in 2019.56 These investments were based in part on the personal interest of Gates in advancing vaccine technologies, and since the foundation prioritized finding promising but overlooked methods in related fields. BioNTech had begun working on mRNA therapeutics to address cancer, but was supported by the “[Gates] Foundation [because it] often looked at ‘adjacent’ scientific disciplines whose innovations might help fight infectious diseases…‘We were doing a lot of horizon-scanning to see what the trends were, what was changing, and who were the cutting-edge people,’ Stuart [a director at the Gates Foundation] says, ‘and BioNTech clearly surfaced.’”57

Intervention 2: Address market failures in the “scientific marketplace”

Established pharmaceutical companies were well-positioned to accelerate the development and deployment of mRNA vaccines. These companies possessed the necessary research talent, financial resources, and practical mass production know-how to transform the technology into a workable product.

Despite being well-positioned to lead the way, pharmaceutical companies did not.

The government is a market force.