Kansas native and 'father of COVID vaccines' to give presentation through K-State

Mar. 11—A man who has been called the "chief architect" of vaccines against COVID-19 will be part of a live webinar hosted by Kansas State University.

Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, is to be the featured guest in a webinar from K-State Research and Extension and Lafene Health Center on March 18.

The presentation, "Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Development: Why and How," will be live on YouTube starting at 7 p.m. It also will be on the K-State Research and Extension website at ksre-learn.com/COVID-19-vaccine-webinar.

Graham, who grew up in Olathe and Paola, said the main goal of his presentation is to help people understand why it is important to be vaccinated and why it is important for the vaccine development process to move quickly.

"A lot of people are worried that we went too fast (with development)," Graham said. "I can explain the biology and things behind vaccine development that'll make it make sense; I want them to know how vaccines work and have a better sense of what they're making a decision about."

Graham led the team that created a technological approach that lies in the foundation of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. His innovation allowed research into the rapid creation of microscopically precise vaccines that can be specifically tuned to combat emerging pandemic-causing viruses like COVID-19.

"There's a whole raft of new technologies out there now that can be applied to vaccines, and it makes it more likely and feasible to now develop vaccines for things we haven't really been able to before," Graham said.

Graham said his family connection to Kansas is one of the reasons behind him presenting this information through K-State. He said he still has family in Lawrence and Overland Park, and he wants them and the rest of the country to be able to make an informed decision on why getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is an important step.

"It's to protect yourself, and to help protect your community and your family around you," Graham said. "That protection of other people is not just about them not getting infected; it's about doing your part in diminishing virus replication among people."

Graham said there have been plenty of technological advancements over the past 100 years that have happened opportunistically and aided in vaccine development, from discovering how to culture cells to the molecular biology revolution in the 1980s, to present day with companies like Moderna developing a COVID-19 vaccine in just under a year.

"I think this has almost been an incubator demonstration project with the world," Graham said. "There have been more than 250 vaccine concepts catalogued by the World Health Organization; that's just never happened before... it's kind of a testament to new technologies available and the number of groups they are accessible to."

Graham said part of the discussion among scientists and researchers is how to prepare for the next potential pandemic threat beyond COVID-19.

"I'm not sure it makes sense for 250 groups to work on the same virus when there's potential threats out there that haven't been solved," Graham said. "My bias is it'd be nice to have more of a global plan, with work on other viral infections."

Graham said the global scientific community is at a pivotal time when people can do better at looking ahead to potential viral events.

"I'm pushing for doing more prospective planning and preparation than always just reacting to things," Graham said. "It means that we need to be more proactive and get out ahead of it instead of just reacting to things one at a time."

Following Graham's presentation, he will answer questions from the audience, and be joined by a panel featuring Marci Nielsen, the chief advisor for COVID-19 coordination for the state of Kansas, and Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician from Fredonia, Kansas. The discussion will be moderated by Kyle Goerl, medical director at Lafene Health Center.

Graham said he is not trying to talk anybody into getting inoculated, however he is presenting information and facts on the choices available to people right now.

"Within three to five years it's likely just about everybody on earth will have immunity to this virus, either through infection or vaccination," Graham said. "People have to make the choice between those two."