Saving Lives with Basic Science

Donors love to support science that shows immediate, world-changing potential. Yet the rapid development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) this year makes the case for philanthropic support for less glamorous fundamental research.

Before 2020, the record for fastest vaccine development was four years. One reason we got a COVID vaccine so quickly this time is that researchers drew on new technology and accumulated wisdom to design and synthesize the components with less guesswork.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, carrying the blueprint for a spike protein unique to the COVID-19 virus, made their public debut in 2020, but they had been in the works for years.

Also expediting the vaccines were philanthropy and government-supported basic biomedical science. Specifically, the research that enabled mRNA vaccination was often supported by funders seeking cancer treatments. Supporters knew that defeating a disease as complex as cancer required playing the scientific long game.

Preventing the next pandemic requires the same fundamental approach. Can we use the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to help more funders see the light?