The Man Delivering COVID Vaccines to Poorer Nations
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what good is a vaccine if people can't actually get it?
By Nick Fouriezos
Growing up in central Illinois the son of a pager salesman and special education teacher, Jacob Becraft began interning at the local USDA research lab in high school. The Peoria site was famous. Without it, the Allies might never have won World War II. That’s because although penicillin had been discovered a decade before, it was scientists at the site who had figured out how to actually mass-produce it — by injecting penicillin molds into cantaloupes.
That strange, crucial discovery was estimated to have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And the takeaway for Becraft was that sometimes discovering how to manufacture and distribute a cure is even more powerful than discovering the cure itself. “The Nobel Prize was given to the man who discovered penicillin, but the way it got to all those patients was not from that discovery,” the 29-year-old biotech entrepreneur says. “Infrastructure and deployment is not as sexy as discovery, but that’s how it made an impact on lives.”
That lesson is especially crucial today, as companies and countries around the world race to find a vaccine against COVID-19. More than 170 research teams have worked toward that goal, with nine now in phase three, large-scale efficacy trials, according to The Guardian. And yet, even if a vaccine is discovered, it will take at least until the end of 2024 for everyone in the world to be inoculated. That’s according to Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine producer, who made the prediction this week, assuming a two-dose vaccine that would add up to 15 billion doses worldwide.
That reality creates a global predicament, where wealthier countries are likely to see the vaccine first — and will probably have to keep their borders closed (or at least restricted) to less developed nations whose citizens could bring the virus with them … potentially exacerbating economic disparities even further. That is, unless people like Becraft, CEO of Strand Therapeutics, are able to narrow the emerging vaccine gap by making production and delivery easier and cheaper. “The idea of herd immunity doesn’t work in our globalized world without equity in vaccine distribution,” Becraft says, and unless less privileged nations get attention too, “they’ll be at the back of the line waiting for the COVID vaccine, which is dangerous for the whole world.”
Becraft is already working with three countries in Southeast Asia (which he couldn’t legally disclose) and is also in talks with India. His company, Strand, is rooted in technology he built while earning his doctorate at MIT — a delivery platform that allows you to “turn vaccines on and off” with a pill that triggers the release process. The implications of such tech are powerful: Many vaccines include two doses administered weeks apart, which makes them difficult to get to rural areas, where poor and less-educated patients may face challenges getting to the doctor’s office even once.
However, if a single dose can be administered, with the patient taking a pill to trigger the second part of the process later, that could halve the number of vaccines required — theoretically taking those 15 billion doses that Poonawalla said are needed down to just 7.5 billion, for example. Of course, the Strand tech would have to be implemented on a massive scale, which is unlikely for the 25-scientist startup, founded in December 2017, which has raised only about $6 million in seed funding so far. Compare that to the nearly $1 billion in funding the biotech company Moderna, which has more than 750 employees, has already received from the U.S. government to produce an mRNA vaccine.
Still, Strand’s development of smarter vaccines and automated manufacturing systems could solve the crucial question of how a vaccine will reach people in poorer countries once it’s finally developed. The company is also developing production systems that would allow doctors to manufacture vaccines predominantly on site, rather than having to, say, ship a vaccine at minus 80 degrees Celsius across the world, as some inoculations now require. “There is a lot of talk right now about the cold supply chain of a vaccine,” Becraft says, but “we don’t have to worry about that if we can make it closer to the place of care.”
This work is the culmination of a years-long evolution for Becraft. He graduated from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign with a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering in 2013, then went on to earn a doctorate in biological engineering at MIT in 2019. While in that latter program, Becraft was part of a group of biotech-focused engineers who believed their work could change the world — and did not want to be confined to academia. “When we started grad school together, pretty much everybody wanted to become professors,” says Tony Kulesa, an MIT classmate and founder of the pre-seed investment company Petri Bio. “But Jake and I were rare people who challenged that, [asking] how do we reach real-world impact with these technologies? It wasn’t going to happen through academic papers.”
What set Becraft apart, even in his college days, was his ability to attract talent around him. “Jake was pretty singular in being both technically excellent and able to really rally people around himself,” Kulesa says. And Becraft’s high-energy personality has allowed the avid backcountry snowboarder and Brazilian jiu jitsu student to drive his company forward even during the pandemic.
Strand’s technology may have other powerful uses, in addition to fighting off COVID-19. Its platform “has exciting potential for treating many devastating diseases,” said Chris Otey, a senior vice president at Alexandria Venture Investments, when announcing investment in the company. “We are particularly excited about its initial use in oncology, where its programmability may allow it to kill tumors even as they begin to develop resistance.” Fight off a global pandemic, and maybe one day stop cancer in its tracks? Just another day’s work for Becraft, as he develops the technology that may solve some of this generation’s most pressing challenges.