Monday, July 13, 2020
by Elder Rich Hjorth, Ph.D.

Virologist (vi-RO-log-ist), noun:
 scientist who deals with viruses and viral diseases

When I was finishing my first term as an elder last November, I wasn’t sure if I should continue since I didn’t think my training as a virologist would be that useful to Session going forward.

I thought that it might be better to replace me with someone with a business or financial background.  JC convinced me that it’s part of Presbyterian culture to seek out many diverse viewpoints… even that of a virologist, as long as an elder is engaged in the deliberating process of Session meetings.  
God slowly spoke to me after days of asking him for guidance, and I knew he wanted me to sign up for a second term. What a surprise when Covid came and there was actually a need for a viewpoint of a virologist. Who would have thunk? So I’ve been happy to help out along with others in our congregation by advising on precautions we need to take.  (Right: Rich on the right, at a production facility in Serbia.)
As I look back at my career, I see that God had a plan for me all along. He gave me a natural talent for virology that I noticed back in undergraduate school. Then, when I completed my training, I got a job in industry working in technical support of various vaccines, especially influenza vaccines.

There, I was able to contribute to improving and developing a few new vaccines such as Flumist, High Dose vaccine for seniors, and the first vaccine for a possible pandemic from influenza H5, bird flu.

Doing applied research and development, I learned that no experiment is a failure as long as you learn from it and persist. But through trial and error, I often eventually succeeded at what I was trying to do - all the while learning about the vaccine production process. 
I retired from Sanofi Pasteur in 2011 and was ready for a long rest after some grueling years of working 60-80 hour weeks. But that is when God arranged for his plan to take over. When I retired, I was asked to consult by someone who worked for a group called PATH, a technical arm of the Gates Foundation.  (Right: Rich at a partner facility in Nha Trang, Vietnam)
They were working on a Government grant to enhance the world’s ability to respond to a pandemic, which we all thought would be of influenza virus. 

The work involved going to different second and third world countries and helping them work out production processes for flu vaccine grown in eggs. What appealed most to me was the Gates Foundation motto that they believe all people are of equal value. This fit well with my Christian values. 
I saw that during the small pandemic of H1 flu in 2009 that all the major companies, including my own, put out statements that they would share their vaccines with the less-developed world. What that usually meant, was that the less-developed world would get the leftovers after all the vaccine was first supplied to the first world countries. I was struck by the unfairness.
Developing capacity in less-developed countries meant that they would have control, and be able to get vaccine to their people before it was too late. God had been training me all along to be able to share my learnings with these countries: Vietnam, Thailand, Serbia, and Brazil who all developed successful influenza vaccines.   (Right, Rich, in the middle, with colleagues at Nha Trang, Vietnam )
Once the Covid pandemic struck, I thought of my colleagues and friends in different countries that I’d worked with over the years. They had nice egg- based vaccine processes that were no good at all because Coronavirus doesn’t grow in eggs.

After talking with my colleagues at PATH and Gates, we approached a group at Mt. Sinai in New York City. They very quickly engineered the Corona S protein into a virus that grows well in eggs and can be made into a vaccine using the same process that makes influenza vaccines. We formed a Consortium of manufacturers to work together and share information, and received an initial grant from the Gates Foundation that we used to show that our vaccine was strong and effective in protecting animals from Covid.

Now, we have applied for a larger grant from another organization called CEPI that will pay for the process of scaling up and preparing for clinical trials. If all goes well, we hope to be ready in June 2021 for Emergency Use Authorization to immunize with our vaccine.

I didn’t want to be working this hard in retirement, but I really believe this is part of why God put me here and gave me the opportunities to develop my skills. Indeed, all of God’s people are of equal value and deserve to be protected from Covid.
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