“Bad news wrapped up in protein.” That’s how the late Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar and his wife and collaborator, Jean Medawar, once described viruses. In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, that “bad news” was an unprecedented pandemic leading to more than 3 million deaths so far.
The virus causing this global crisis is surprisingly simple: just 29 proteins wrapped around a single strand of RNA. Its entire RNA sequence can be typed on about 13 sheets of paper totaling, just 7.5 kilobytes of data. Compare that to the human genome which, at more than 3 billion letters long, is equivalent to a stack of 1,000 King James Bibles or about 725 megabytes of data.
Why is this comparison relevant? Because understanding how Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly and authorized for emergency use in less than a year — something that would have been unheard of even a few years ago — goes back to this simplicity and the ability to use software to develop digital vaccines.