Goshen alumni contribute to Pfizer vaccine efforts

By Augusta Nafziger ’23

Two Goshen College alumni played important roles in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. Robert Lerch, Ph.D., head of lab & site management and business operations at pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and Mark Wittrig, senior director of quality assurance at Pfizer, both graduated from Goshen College in 1984.

Robert Lerch ’84 was a chemistry and biology major.

Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

The first known cases of COVID-19 were reported in December of 2019. Three months later, Pfizer released its initial plan for combating the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that the company would be partnering with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech to develop a vaccine.

As senior director of vaccine research, Lerch was responsible for many moving parts of the vaccine development process, including fulfilling lab and office space needs, keeping track of budgets and ensuring that Pfizer had enough scientists and researchers to move the vaccine project forward. He notes that the hardest part of the process was the very problem that Pfizer was racing to fix: a global pandemic.

“The initiation of the collaboration with BioNTech to develop the COVID vaccine actually meant ramping up activities while trying to minimize potential pandemic impact,” said Lerch. “That was the biggest challenge for me: keeping work going to create new space for the ever-growing COVID vaccine program while managing supplies and activities amid pandemic shortages and restrictions.”

Mark Wittrig ’84 studied chemistry at Goshen College.

Three states away, Mark Wittrig began work on the quality and regulatory aspects of the vaccine at Pfizer’s manufacturing site in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“I worked very closely with scientists to ensure that every new process, new piece of equipment and new testing procedure was qualified and validated,” he said.

Vaccine Status Today

Once Pfizer and BioNTech successfully developed a vaccine against COVID-19, the companies needed to determine how to get it to as many people as possible.

“It took a village of over six hundred Vaccine Research and Development colleagues and hundreds more within other groups in Pfizer to get a safe vaccine to the public in record time,” said Lerch.

According to Wittrig, the goal was to “figure out how to scale everything up.”

“Instead of making a dozen doses a day in a lab, we needed to be able to make millions of doses a day,” said Wittrig. “We converted facilities that formerly produced other sterile products so that they could make the millions of doses of the vaccine that we needed.”

Now his team at Kalamazoo is distributing about 15 million vaccine doses a week. Most of the doses are currently being sent to Canada, Japan and Latin America.

“Pfizer will distribute three billion doses this year and has plans to produce four billion doses in 2022,” said Wittrig. “The majority of those doses will be distributed at a discounted cost or free.”

However, Wittrig adds, “there is still lots of work to do.”

“I continue to work on updating the manufacturing and testing processes to make them as reliable and efficient as possible,” he said. “This is the best project I’ve worked on in my entire career because it has helped and will help so many people. It’s the reason I got into the pharmaceutical industry 37 years ago.”

Lerch is hopeful for the future of the COVID-19 vaccine and attributes some of his interest in vaccine research and public health to his Goshen College education.

“Early on, working for a biopharmaceutical company seemed a little at odds with the Culture for Service motto,” he said. “However, in my 27-year career with Pfizer Vaccine Research and Development, I’ve had the privilege to work on multiple vaccines, including COVID-19, which have saved millions of lives and had a significant impact on public health.”

Lerch adds that his time at Goshen College helped him to learn to “think critically and understand that science doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Sometimes you just have to have faith.”

How the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Works:

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a mRNA vaccine. RNA is a compound that replaces DNA as a genetic code carrier in some viruses, and messenger RNA (mRNA) is the type of RNA that is responsible for protein production. A mRNA vaccine is effective because it uses mRNA to teach our cells how to make a specific protein, which in turn triggers an immune response from the body and fights illnesses such as COVID-19.

Still confused? Wittrig breaks it down for us below:

“Researchers identified that the spike proteins on the virus were excellent targets because those proteins are instrumental in the way the virus attaches to human respiratory cells and thus take over host cells,” he said. “They figured that if they could create mRNA that caused human cells to build fragments of those proteins, then the human immune system could be trained to recognize and fight those proteins that showed up as part of the actual virus.”

In summary, COVID-19 uses spike proteins to penetrate host cells. The COVID-19 vaccine works because it uses mRNA to build parts of those same spike proteins, which allows our bodies to learn to fight the spike proteins before we become infected with COVID-19. Thus, when we are exposed to COVID-19 after being vaccinated, our bodies already know how to deal with the virus.

Wittrig notes that the use of spike proteins in the COVID-19 vaccine is ideal for several reasons.

“One great advantage is that the spike proteins are less likely to mutate because if they do, they probably won’t be able to invade human respiratory cells as efficiently,” he said. “Another great advantage is that a spike protein fragment is extremely unlikely to present any risk to a patient. It is not an actual virus that has been weakened or killed and can’t cause an actual infection.”