Skip to main content

Basic Sciences Dean’s Lecture presented by renowned virologist

By Leah Mann

View of the audience in the Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium where Graham gave his talk. The perspective is from the back of the room, so you can see the packed room of audience members as Graham stands at a podium at the front. Next to him is a screen with his presentation on it.
Barney Graham delivers the Distinguished Alumni Award address. (Harrison McClary)

The October 17 School of Medicine Basic Sciences Dean’s Lecture featured renowned immunologist, virologist, and alumnus Dr. Barney S. Graham, PhD’91. Throughout his career, Graham has made incredible scientific achievements, leading the first human trial on the AIDS vaccine and serving as the chief architect for the first experimental COVID-19 vaccines. In recognition of his contributions not only to Vanderbilt but also the universal community, Graham won the 2021 Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumni Award, which Chancellor Daniel Diermeier presented to him at a reception following his lecture. Graham joins the 16 alumni who have been recognized since 1996.

Daniel Diermeier (left) and Barney Graham (right). Graham is holding his framed Distinguished Alumni Award, which is stylized like a medieval letter (with stylish letters and colorful touches down the left side of the letter).
Chancellor Daniel Diermeier presents Barney Graham with the Distinguished Alumni Award. (Harrison McClary)

In his talk, “Reflections on Pandemics and the Future of Medicine,” Graham discussed his early research experiences leading up to his seminal work on the first experimental COVID-19 vaccines, along with his observations on the pandemic and hopes for the future of medicine.

Graham began his address by recounting the onset of the first pandemic he witnessed while serving as chief resident at Nashville General Hospital in 1982. Early on in his chief residency, Graham saw a patient with a whole host of conditions that were occurring simultaneously. The patient presented a conundrum for the physicians and his diagnosis was a mystery until they discovered that this man was one of the first patients with AIDS in Tennessee. “That’s what started my course toward being a virologist,” Graham told his audience.

Since then, Graham has encountered many additional viral threats and emerging infectious diseases. Reflecting on past pandemics, Graham identified recurrent patterns, demonstrating that pandemics often follow wars and social conflicts and feature misplaced blame and political polarization. Yet, Graham recognized that “after these pandemics, there was often a period of relative enlightenment.”

Wonder Drake, with a hand under her chin, looking toward Graham (off frame). She is surrounded by other audience members.
Dr. Wonder P. Drake, professor of medicine, listens as part of the audience. (Harrison McClary)

Graham’s virology career commenced with research on respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, and later focused on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. After his move from Vanderbilt to the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, Graham thought that it was necessary to “have a more proactive approach to pandemic preparedness.” The idea was to identify prototypical viruses that could represent the 27 viral families that infect humans and develop trial vaccines for each one.

While working on the Zika outbreak response, the VRC saw the potential of mRNA approaches, which had greater potency than DNA-based approaches. Consequently, the VRC and Moderna made a deal to work on mRNA-based vaccines for coronaviruses and paramyxoviruses.

James Crowe, with his hands (palms together) in front of his chin, looking up toward the screen (off frame).
Dr. James E. Crowe Jr., professor of pediatrics and fellow vaccine researcher, listens to Graham’s talk. (Harrison McClary)

Fortuitously, by the time SARS-CoV-2 entered the scene in late 2019, Graham and the VRC were in an unusual position. They had made strides in technology advancement, RSV research, structure-based design, and antibody discovery, and had formed unique public-private and academic partnerships. “The entire system was there waiting for this kind of response,” Graham said. So, while one can explain the development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine as a one- or two-year story, one could also tell it as a 15-, or 20-, or 40-year story “because it really starts with HIV and the attempts to make an HIV vaccine that led to these new technology developments,” Graham said.

Despite its grievous consequences, Graham noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about the significance of various opportunities on the horizon, basic science research, public health infrastructure, and global cooperation.

Even with the challenges of misinformation and disrupted education, Graham is hopeful for a future filled with physicians and scientists who care more. “You can’t just do well,” he said. “You have to also do good.”

If you would like to view the full lecture, you can access it via YouTube.