John Mascola, America’s soft-spoken, no-nonsense chief vaccinologist, spent 2020 on the fourth floor of the Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, MD, primarily working on three projects. There’s a decent chance one of them has already been injected in your arm — twice. Another was infused into hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 patients, potentially protecting them from hospitalization.
And the third is a scientific codex that has bedeviled Mascola, his colleagues, and researchers around the world for the better part of three decades.
Before Covid-19, the largest and longest-running mystery in infectious disease was how to build a vaccine against HIV, the famously evasive virus that has claimed the lives of 36 million people since the 1980s. Within a year of the novel coronavirus’ discovery, two vaccines were already available and shown to be 95% effective. Thirty-eight years after HIV’s discovery, you could fill encyclopedias with all scientists have learned about…
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