What's it like to work on J&J's coronavirus vaccine? For one scientist, it's social distancing in the lab, late nights at home

Rinke Bos is a scientist. But under the bright spotlight of COVID-19, the Johnson & Johnson immunologist has also become a media spokesperson, an online video cast member and one of the many pharma researchers who symbolize hope for the world.

Bos leads the J&J vaccine discovery team of about a dozen researchers in the small town of Leiden in her native country of the Netherlands. The team first began designing potential vaccines after the full RNA sequence for SARS-CoV-2 was released publicly in January. They researched options, performed preclinical testing and corrected designs to narrow down candidates.

The team worked days, nights and weekends in shifts to build and test 10 different vaccine possibilities. At first, they worked together in the lab, but later, after social distancing restrictions went into effect in the Netherlands, they switched to remote work with only one or at most two people allowed in the lab at the same time. That required some shifts in procedures, such as more detailed note-taking, which became critical. Missing specifics in hand-offs between team members could create delays no one wanted.

Then, on March 30, J&J announced the result of the discovery team’s work—a lead vaccine candidate. At the same time, the pharma company pledged $1 billion in partnership with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop it.

“It’s the best feeling that maybe we can contribute to developing a vaccine that might prevent people from getting sick. Especially now that it concerns everybody,” Bos said. “The whole world needs a vaccine.

“That’s mostly exciting, but of course there’s also pressure," Bos added. "When your email inbox grows every time you look away from your computer, that’s sometimes a bit nerve-wracking. Everybody has questions, and they're also in a hurry, so you want to answer as fast as possible,” she added.

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J&J opened the vaccine facility where Bos works in late 2018 to advance its then-ambitious plans for several viral vaccine programs including HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, Ebola, Zika and a universal flu vaccine. The €72 million site—with its laboratories and manufacturing facilities—was designed to also support large-scale commercial rollouts for those candidates—and now, it will do that for J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

While the vaccine discovery team's workload slowed somewhat after the candidate was chosen and moved into preclinical testing, Bos is still operating in overdrive. Normally, the team would wait for clinical data before proceeding, but with the accelerated timeline, all work is being done in parallel, she said.

That means even as Bos and her team wait for the start of the first human trials, planned for September, they're already preparing for global distribution to achieve J&J's goal of one billion vaccines by next year.

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J&J isn’t only aggressively tackling the vaccine challenge, but also widely calling attention to its work and its scientists across digital and social media. In a way, J&J is consumerizing the epidemiology of COVID-19, bringing details and progress directly to the public.

Bos herself appeared in the first episode of the J&J original online series “Road to a Vaccine,” a look behind the scenes with journalist Lisa Ling that now airs live every Tuesday on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and JNJ.com. Other J&J scientists, including Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels and global head of viral vaccine discovery Hanneke Schuitemaker, have also appeared on the show and in media interviews.

On a daily basis, Bos is kept busy testing and making the material needed to start large-scale production—a fact not gone unnoticed by her three children, ages 7, 9 and 11. Initially they thought it was “cool” that their mom was working on a vaccine that could help the world, but they’ve become less enthusiastic—especially during the recent school break, when they would have preferred a playmate and vacation companion.

She's able to take her children to school every day; in the Netherlands, schools can provide care for children of parents who are working in essential professions. (Her husband is a radiology manager at a local hospital.) Bos also reserves every evening from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner and family time. After bedtime books are read, however, she heads back to her computer for more data analysis, emails and study.

Bos said she's glad to have her children as a distraction to take her mind off work at times and stay mentally healthy.

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“Even outside of this crisis, it’s always so nice that as soon as you come home, you focus on the kids. You just think about the kids and you forget about work for a while,” she said. They also help keep her in shape. Along with going for solo runs when she can, Bos joins her children in the backyard for bounce sessions on the family's trampoline.

Bos in turn tends to her work team's mental health and well-being, staying in touch with online video meetings and dropping off food or treats to say thank you and remind them they have support. Bos said one of the things she's looking forward to is the time when they can work together again in the J&J offices and labs.

J&J scientists on Bos' team are just a few of the many people at work inside pharma and research institutions, developing vaccines on previously unimaginable timelines. Pfizer, Sanofi, Moderna and AstraZeneca all have teams working on the more than 70 vaccine candidates being considered for COVID-19.

While Americans have been told by government officials and through the media that a vaccine might be available in 12 to 18 months, some are skeptical. Influential biopharma analyst Geoffrey Porges of SVB Leerlink recently put out an extensive report listing the many reasons he believes that timeline is overly optimistic.

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However, Bos herself is optimistic for vaccine success—she has worked on influenza, Zika and HIV vaccines and noted that this novel coronavirus has proven simpler than many of those viruses. Because it has not yet changed much, she said, it's easier to design a vaccine than it is for fast-evolving viruses, such as the annual moving target of influenza, for instance.

For Bos, the pandemic offers an opportunity for people to see the real work of pharma scientists and remind them of the benefit of vaccines. She hopes that by discussing details about COVID-19, people will better understand what scientists at pharma companies do—and that their main focus is public health, not making money.

“Hopefully we can make—and not just us—but hopefully many companies will be successful and we can produce enough vaccines for the whole world," she said. "The hope is also that the virus will keep being stable and not change over time. In half a year, we will have a lot of data, from us and also from a lot of companies, that will show if the vaccines can protect people. And that’s really the ultimate goal."