Paola Proud: Dr. Barney Graham's contribution to fighting COVID-19

Vaccine designer has local roots
Graham NIH headshot.jpg
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-20 10:42:05-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the American population continues to receive COVID-19 vaccines, 41 Action News sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with one of the chief designers of those vaccines.

He has local roots and has made a significant contribution in the fight to bring the pandemic to an end.

Barney Graham is a Kansas man.

"Lived in Olathe in the early part of my life and moved to Paola when I was a teenager," he said. "We raised quarter horses for while, then we switched to cattle, and then we switched to hogs and had a big farrow to finish the operation, where we raised more than 2,000 head of hogs a year, and that was a learning experience. We farmed about 800 acres to feed them."

Graham’s education took him up the road to the University of Kansas medical school. He became an immunologist and virologist, and in 2000, joined the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health to help their efforts fighting HIV.

"Even though we haven't developed an HIV vaccine yet, all the technologies that we have worked on to do that have all been applied to these new problems: unmet needs and emerging infections," Graham said.

He can easily recall what happened on Dec. 31, 2019.

"I sent an email to some of my lab members and told them we should keep our eyes on this outbreak that was reported in China and about an hour later after a second report came I said, you need to be ready for 2020," Graham said.

On Jan. 7, a key conversation took place, with a key partner.

"We had established a plan for what we call prototype pathogen approach for pandemic preparedness. And that combined our ability to do precision design of proteins with Moderna's ability to do rapid manufacturing," Graham explained.

On Jan. 11, they had the novel coronavirus’ genetic sequence, and Dr. Graham went to work on designing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, starting with identifying the virus' spike protein.

"Its job is to reach out and grab a cell and then pull the virus into the cell to start the infection, so during that process that protein undergoes a big rearrangement," Graham explained.

The next step is to take that protein, modify it and weaponize it against the virus.

"Our job to make a vaccine is to take that protein, stabilize it in its native functional confirmation or shape, keep it that way so that the immune response can see the right surfaces. If they see the rearranged surfaced then they're responding to the nonfunctional protein," Graham explained.

The next step is to use Moderna's messenger RNA technology to rapidly manufacture vaccines. That took six weeks.

"Making a vaccine requires about 1,000 decisions and they all have to work out the right way in order to get to a place where it's really going to turn out to work," Graham said.

The final step was clinical trials. The results surprised the decades-long veteran in the field.

"I was expecting 70 and hoping for 80% effectiveness and when it came back 95% effectiveness, it was extremely gratifying, it was a little…that was emotional," Graham remembered.

It’s not just Moderna’s vaccine. Pfizer used Dr. Graham’s modified protein design, too, but his work continues.

"We're really all in this together in the sense that every infection that you can prevent might be the one that stops that next new virus variant from escaping our vaccine," Graham said.

The vaccine he helped design is the product of problem-solving skills developed on a farm in Paola, Kansas.

"Half of every day was spent either fixing something or trying to find a solution to a problem for a piece of equipment you didn't have or something unexpected that, when you have animals though it's always something unexpected going on, so I think that that training was as important as any schooling I got along the way to help me do what I do now," Graham said.

The man meeting a global moment has roots planted in the Sunflower State.