COVID-19 was killing thousands a day worldwide, and humanity desperately needed a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhD remembered the urgency he felt as he led the charge to create Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine: “We have to make this technology do what it can do. And we have to do it now.”
Edwards, a three-time UCF graduate, is Moderna’s director of immunology. Friday, he was the featured speaker at the College of Medicine’s third Dr. John C. and Martha Hitt Grand Rounds.
Grand Rounds are a tradition at medical schools, where scientists and physicians gather to teach and learn from one another with the goal of increasing excellence in patient care. The Hitt Grand Rounds, named to honor UCF’s former president and first lady, is made possible from an endowment by the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. David Odahowski, Edyth Bush’s president and CEO, credited Edwards with a scientific discovery that allowed Grand Rounds to be in-person this year.
“It’s a full house, thanks to you,” Odahowsk said. “You’ve put the ‘grand’ back into Grand Rounds.”
In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to create the vaccine. He said previous discoveries about messenger RNA — or mRNA — were the reason scientists could create a COVID-19 vaccine in 11 months. While most vaccines contain a weakened or dead bacteria or virus, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They don’t contain the pathogen so they can’t make you sick. Instead, mRNA serves as a messenger that notifies the body to make a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a specific disease.
While COVID-19 brought increased public awareness to mRNA, scientists actually had been working on the technology for decades, Edwards explained. When the COVID-19 virus’ entire genetic makeup was published, “We had all we needed,” Edwards said. “I had spent four years understanding mRNA. We knew the approach to take.”
He described how members of his team worked 12- and 16-hour days in the lab covered in protective gear to develop and test the vaccine. Each day he made calls from his home office to infectious disease experts worldwide and physicians and scientists with organizations like the National Institutes of Health. The Moderna team had to create a vaccine that was safe yet strong enough to be effective and in a way that could be mass-produced.
“You can make something,” he said, “but if you can’t manufacture it consistently, it’s not one that can be medically effective.”
The mRNA vaccine effectively signaled the body’s immune system to create antibodies to COVID-19 and then was out of a person’s system in about 72 hours.
According to the CDC, the United States has had almost 100 million COVID-19 cases, resulting in more than 1 million deaths. Edwards said that as a UCF undergraduate and a graduate student at the College of Medicine, he never could have predicted his role in developing a vaccine for a worldwide pandemic. But he said UCF taught him how to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. It had also given him the opportunity for higher education. He noted that he had received a full undergraduate scholarship when Hitt arrived as UCF’s president and went into the community offering scholarships to talented high school students. Edwards said he never would have been able to afford college without the scholarship.
He urged students not to let the difficulties of their education discourage them from achieving their dreams. “Persistence can’t just be grit your teeth and go,” he said. “Find your passion.”
As part of the Grand Rounds tradition, Deborah German, vice president for Health Affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented Edwards with the Hitt commemorative medal.
“He solved one of our world’s most dangerous problems,” she said. “He helped save our world from a global pandemic.”
As a surprise, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright closed the event by presenting Edwards with another award. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF Alumni hosted the annual Shining Knights Alumni Event. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, in recognition of a UCF alumna or alumnus who has brought international acclaim to UCF through their accomplishments. He could not attend that event, so he received the award in-person on the College of Medicine stage.
“Through creative research and development of next-generation vaccination technology, you have dedicated your career to improving global health and helping others,” Cartwright said. “We are proud to honor Darin Edwards, Class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.”