Noubar Afeyan on Academia, Business, Immigration, and the American Dream
By David Henderson
Tyler Cowen has posted an outstanding interview of Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of Moderna, which produces one of the two COVID-19 vaccines approved so far by the Food and Drug Administration. Tyler is at the top of his game, asking really good questions, and you can just see the respect that that creates in Afeyan.
Some highlights follow.
On individualized medicine
We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.
That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.
Big question I wish Tyler had asked as a follow-on: Do you think the FDA will loosen its reins enough that Moderna and others can deal that way with individual patients without getting permission and doing large-scale tests?
The Academic Scientific Community vs. the Business Scientific Community
Look, the scientific method, the scientific community — it works on advances that are predicated on current and prior advances. Incremental advances are the coin of the realm. It’s not that they’re conservative. It’s just that the process, the communal process of accepting truth as that which can’t be negated, causes you to therefore be, in every which way, questioning everything.
I learned long ago the expression organized skepticism. That’s what science is predicated on. As a result, if you come forward with something that is not fully supported by and connected to the current reality, people don’t know what to do with it. What many academic scientists do is to spend the next 5, 10 years putting the connections in place to make what’s being proposed a natural extension of what existed before.
In industry, we don’t have that need, and the reason Moderna was able to really be the pioneer in the space of establishing a therapeutic platform, even before a vaccine platform, is because for us, the lack of connection between what we were able to do and what had been done before was marginally interesting, but we weren’t trying to publish it.
When you patent something, you don’t have to show that it’s a natural extension of what people did. You just have to describe something that is novel, that is unobvious. In fact, the less connected, the more unobvious, and/or the less connectible.
Note this sentence: “What many academic scientists do is to spend the next 5, 10 years putting the connections in place to make what’s being proposed a natural extension of what existed before.” It reminds me of the old joke about the academic who, observing that a TV works in practice, wants to understand whether it works in theory.
On Immigration and the American Dream
This next is my absolute favorite of the interview.
I also would say that as a country, there’s so many people who have the experience of coming here, that that experience can also be transmitted to people who are born here, for whom the same mindset of being willing to imagine a better . . . If you look, every single person who comes to this country imagines a better future for themselves. That’s my belief. Maybe not every single person — 99 percent.
Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.
This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.
That brings up two memories, one old, one relatively recent.
The old memory is that when I came to this country in 1972, at age 21, I had the American dream in mind and I noticed right away that a large swath of the people I ran into in Los Angeles, whether at UCLA or in the city generally, who had grown up in the United States, didn’t.
The more-recent memory is of an interaction I had with a man who was considering running for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. I think the conversation happened in 2015, and it was at a Hoover Institution roundtable I had been invited to. I can’t name the person without violating the confidentiality rules.
He made a statement about immigrants that surprised me. He said (and I think I’m getting his words almost word for word), “So many immigrants come here and act right away as if they just arrived at home base after hitting a home run.”
When it was my turn to talk, I said, “Person X, I’m an immigrant and I thought when I got my green card I’d arrived at home base or at least at third base. I was given a list of crimes that, if I committed them, would get me booted out of the country and none of these crimes were ones I planned to commit.”
Then I made the mistake of asking about his record in a previous office he had held. He answered about his record but didn’t address my point about immigration. This man had the attitude that Afeyan attributes to many Americans: Simply by being born here, he seems to think that he’s made the rounds to home base.
I really don’t know what some politicians and some Americans expect out of us immigrants.