OTTAWA — The Canadian scientist whose eureka moment is helping shield millions from Covid-19 has turned his attention to snake bites.
Moderna co-founder Derrick Rossi’s discovery more than a decade ago launched the field of mRNA therapeutics. He found he could get mRNA molecules to carry a code in human cells, a technology that now underpins widely administered Covid vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
“The power of this thing was immediately obvious to me,” he said. “I always knew that mRNA medicines were going to come. Did I predict that a global pandemic would be the stage that the first approved mRNA drug would be on the market? No.”
Now, he says, more mRNA drugs are on the way.
The molecular biologist served on Moderna’s boards until 2014, so he didn’t have a direct hand in the company’s development of its Covid vaccine.
Rossi, nonetheless, has been busy. He tells POLITICO in an interview that he’s dedicated much of the past year to the international fight against snake venom.
Rossi's preoccupation: He rattles off statistics — snakes kill 125,000 people each year and maim 450,000. Snake bites, he added, mostly threaten the most marginalized people on the planet, such as poor farm workers in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Asia.
“As soon as people hear that, they're like, ‘F—, I didn't realize it was such a big problem. What's being done about it?’” Rossi said. “And then turns out that nothing is being done about it.”
Since 2017, he’s been CEO of Cleveland-based Convelo Therapeutics, which is developing medicines for multiple sclerosis.
As an entrepreneur, he describes himself as an “ad-hoc biotech consultant” who helps companies strategize. “People are pitching me science all the time,” said Rossi, who retired from Harvard University’s medical school in 2018.
Since the start of the pandemic, Rossi has spent a lot of time explaining mRNA and vaccines, in general, to the public.
Policymakers have also been reaching out to him for advice.
Message to policymakers: Rossi wants governments to make bets. He says Canada needs to get back into the business of drug manufacturing.
He applauds Moderna's recent announcement that it plans to build a factory in Canada as well as what he says are the country's emerging hubs that support biotech.
Rossi has also been recommending governments explore new funding mechanisms, similar to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), to support Canadian research and innovation.
Make smart bets: Rossi recommends the federal government avoid the temptation to spread taxpayer money evenly among the provinces. “You've got to make bets that are going to make an impact,” he said.
“If it means investing $300 million at Site A and $900 billion at Site B and only two provinces benefit from that, then that's okay… Canada needs to be a little bit more bold.”
He said the strategic bets need to be based on science, ideas and local environments. The ideal geographic area, he added, needs a large, educated workforce, intellectual property expertise and manufacturing know-how nearby. There also needs to be investment.
“This is what I'm talking about with Canadian policymakers all the time, and all agree that this is the way to do it,” said Rossi, who’s had discussions with provinces like Ontario as well as at the federal level. “I'm happy to chime in to help make sure that Canada is prepared for biomedicine in the future, because it's an industry that is not going away.”
Global supply chains: Rossi said he’s also been focused on biomedicine’s global supply chains and the fact China makes much of the world’s raw materials.
He argues the raw materials should be spread around the planet so that geographic tensions won’t stop the flow of medicines.
Rossi says he’s been working with others to bring biomedicine manufacturing to Africa. He noted that Moderna announced recently that it planned to build an mRNA production factory in a still-to-be-determined location on the continent.
On his post-Covid notoriety: One would think Rossi would have become a household name during the past 20 months for his mRNA breakthrough.
But during the pandemic his profile has been largely below public radar.
“I get plenty of recognition,” said Rossi, who added his discovery was made possible because of earlier discoveries in the field. “Science… it’s always built on the shoulders of others.”
He’s been honored by schools and has received awards, including a prestigious 2021 Princess of Asturias Award.
“It's not what I'm in the game for,” Rossi said. “I love science and if our science can … eventually turn into a medicine that impacts human health, then I'm totally satisfied.”
What’s next: He hopes snake bites will be one of those areas that will benefit from a scientific breakthrough. When you do the math, he says more than a million people will be killed by venom and another five million maimed.
“It's time to bring modern science to this challenge of snake bites.”
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( Information from politico.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )