Wright's article not only answers many questions about what went wrong with our response, but also what went right. How, for instance, did we develop a vaccine to combat the virus so rapidly. The answer is that a two-man team of Jason McLellan and Barney S. Graham (pictured above) at N.I.H. had developed a design as far back as 2013 that established "clinical proof of concept for structure-based vaccine design," portending "an era of precision vaccinology." The very same design now being shot into the arms of people around the world.
Back then, with recently-developed, high-powered microscopes, Graham and McLellan modified the MERS coronavirus spike protein, creating an entirely new vaccine. It worked well in mice, but then the MERS virus died out naturally and so did the funding for further research and human testing. So there it sat...until COVID-19 hit.
Graham called McLellan and asked if he and his team would like to get "back in the saddle" and help him create a vaccine?
As Wright tells it, "'Of course,' McLellan said.
"'We got the sequences Friday night, the tenth of January,' Graham told me. They had been posted online by the Chinese. 'We woke up on the eleventh and started designing proteins.' Nine days later, the coronavirus officially arrived in America."
Now, what brought this all home to me was the fact that Dr. Barney S. Graham grew up in Paola, Kansas, about 20 miles down the road from where I grew up in Olathe, and he had earned his medical degree at the University of Kansas, where I was born (some years earlier), and where he had met his wife, Cynthia Turner-Graham, now a well-respected psychiatrist.
An important, personal aside here, again as told by author Lawrence Wright:
"First, he and Cynthia had to complete residencies. They wanted to be in the same town, a problem many couples face, but additionally complicated in their case because Cynthia is Black. She suggested Nashville: he could apply to Vanderbilt School of Medicine and she to Meharry Medical College, a historically Black institution. Tennessee had only recently repealed a ban on interracial marriage.
"Driving back to Kansas from Maryland on Christmas Eve, Graham stopped in at Vanderbilt. To his surprise, the director of the residency program, Thomas Brittingham, was in his office and willing to meet with him immediately. When the interview was over, Graham told Brittingham, 'I know this is the South. I'm going to marry a Black woman, and if that makes a difference I can't come here.' Brittingham said, 'Close the door.' He welcomed Graham on the spot. Cynthia was accepted at Meharry, and so they moved to Nashville."
I'll leave the rest of the story for you to read yourself. You won't be sorry.