Jon Young

Investments by industry and academia paved the way for the mRNA vaccines currently being used to protect people against COVID-19, according to WARF Therapeutics head Jon Young.

“The comments I hear often are, these vaccines were rushed, these vaccines were not researched, and that is absolutely, patently untrue,” he said in a recent interview.

Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines rely on mRNA, or messenger RNA. Once inside the body, this material helps cells build immunity to the COVID-19 virus through the creation of antibodies.

About 2.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and 3.6 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been administered in Wisconsin. The Department of Health Services site shows 56.7 percent of the state’s population have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, while 53.8 percent have completed the vaccine series.

Young explained that the concept behind mRNA was being explored for decades in the scientific community as “the next cool way to solve disease, especially vaccines.” He said it took 20 years of research to figure out how to transform the idea into an applicable form, including significant investments in biology research and drug discovery.

“If it wasn’t for that large investment, that 20 years of investment, we would not have been able to face down this pandemic with critical vaccines right now,” he said. “It all came together at the right time.”

Drug discovery research continues through universities, pharmaceutical companies and other groups like WARF Therapeutics, with early-stage funding often provided by federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Businesses and investors typically provide funding for drug development in its later stages.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is UW-Madison’s patenting and licensing organization, and its therapeutics division employs “drug hunters” to seek new pharmaceutical candidates.

“Basic discovery is the foundation of future medicines that are going to impact our families and our friends,” Young said.

Listen to a recent podcast with Young and Hongmin Chen, WARF Therapeutics’ new head of biology: