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Ralph Baric’s UNC research helped make COVID vaccines happen. He’s our Tar Heel of the Year

“You can measure the impact of his career by lives saved.” Ralph Baric is The News & Observer’s 2021 Tar Heel of the Year for his contributions to the development of the Moderna vaccine and COVID drug treatments.

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. These people have made a difference in our region, state and elsewhere. Here are our stories.

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About 200 million Americans know the anxious feeling that comes when a nurse rolls up your shirt sleeve, wipes your upper arm with a cold, antiseptic wipe, and slightly pinches your skin before jabbing a needle into your arm. They also know the swell of relief that overtakes a bit of that anxiety when the nurse hands over the COVID-19 vaccine card that, for many, feels like a lifeline.

But the stakes were a bit different for 67-year-old Ralph Baric, who volunteered to participate in Phase 3 clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine.

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And the sigh of relief that came with Baric’s shot was a bit fuller.

Over nearly four decades of researching coronaviruses, Baric built the foundation for the rapid response and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. His Baric Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill helped test the effectiveness of vaccine candidates at the beginning of the pandemic. That has likely saved millions of lives.

“I figured if I was involved in pre-clinical development, I should be one of the first ones that took the vaccine to see how well it worked in humans,” Baric said.

“And when they jabbed me in the arm with a vaccine, it was very real. I can assure you, it was very real,” he said.

It was a moment of “incredible satisfaction,” said Baric, a distinguished researcher and professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UNC-CH.

“The opportunity to take fundamental scientific advances into the clinic and see it undergo a trial and then see that the data is spectacular,” Baric said. “That’s incredibly rewarding.”

His work was the source of the hope the world needed to get through the fear, devastation and grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

For his contributions to the development of the Moderna vaccine as well as Remdesivir and Molnupiravir, which are COVID-19 drug treatments, Baric is The News & Observer’s 2021 Tar Heel of the Year. The distinction honors North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions to the state and region — and in this case, the world.

“The list is like a mile long of the things that have gone through this lab that are now given to people or that have improved the lives of others or benefited public health,” said Tim Sheahan, a virologist at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health who has pioneered antiviral drug research alongside Baric.

“Some people, you know, they do basic science, and they make fundamental discoveries about some aspect of biology,” Sheahan said. “But Ralph is always thinking about, ‘How can we take this discovery or this observation or this system and use it for the betterment of human health?’”

It was hard to see how they were doing that before the pandemic, Sheahan said. But it has become clear over the past two years. Without the creation of these basic tools to study coronavirus in the lab, and without Baric, there would be no testing of vaccines or therapeutics.

A commitment to the process

Baric’s research was the basis for multiple vaccines, including Moderna, which was tested on animal models in his UNC-CH lab before it was given to people. His team also conducted the pre-clinical development for the only approved direct-acting antiviral drug, Remdesivir, to treat COVID-19 patients in hospitals. Baric’s lab also studied Molnupiravir, which is the first antiviral pill shown to treat COVID-19 and was authorized for emergency use last month.

“You can measure the impact of his career by lives saved,” said Dr. Billy Fischer, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UNC Health. He specializes in severe viral infections and outbreak response and is the director of emerging pathogens at the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

While everyone else was talking about the increasing frequency and size of dangerous pathogens over the past 10 years and guessing that the next one could be a coronavirus, Baric was doing something about it, Fischer said.

“He has laid in place a process to evaluate therapeutics so he can evaluate which ones are safe and effective and which ones are not,” Fischer said. “That is 90% of the work that goes into trying to save lives at the bedside.”

Without that pipeline, “we are months to years away from the development of antivirals,” Fischer said.

Baric has worked his entire independent career on this one group of viruses. That can be unusual in a field where federal funding shifts to new topics or viruses.

“Scientists are not immune to fashion, even though they seldom display it,” said Bob Johnston, Baric’s mentor at N.C. State University and former colleague at UNC-CH.

But Baric, who has been known to wear a Hawaiian shirt and sweatpants under his lab coat, has helped build that entire field of virology “because of his persistence and his inquisitive nature,” Johnston said.

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Ralph Baric, seen here at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health laboratory in September 2021, has over four decades of researching coronaviruses built the foundation for the rapid response and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. UNC-Chapel Hill

A scientist, swimmer and dad

Baric has always been in an elite class — as a scientist, as an NCAA Division 1 swimmer at N.C. State and as a dad who would drive five hours to see his oldest daughter swim just one race at a meet.

His love for science and the genetics of viruses started at an early age with science fiction novels and grew during grade school in Carneys Point, New Jersey.

But it wasn’t just his brains that got Baric into N.C. State, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology. He was recruited as a long-distance swimmer and earned a full athletic scholarship. He was named an All-American, won three ACC Championship titles, swam a 200-meter butterfly against Mark Spitz and qualified twice for the Olympic Trials.

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UNC-Chapel Hill coronavirus expert Ralph Baric was an All-American swimmer at N.C. State University in the 1970s. Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries

Baric then earned his doctorate in microbiology at N.C. State and did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California, where he honed in on studying coronaviruses and met his wife, Toni.

They moved back to North Carolina together in 1986, and Baric joined the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he built his career and coronavirus lab while raising four kids.

Growing up, Baric’s kids knew their dad was a scientist and worked on viruses, but it was like a different language at the time. Over the years, they cared more about beating him in Mario Kart, which wasn’t very hard, spending time at the pool for swim practice and judging whether he’s got the fastest gun in the West in a pretend quick-draw shootout against their uncle.

Now, though, their dad’s work has a lot more meaning.

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UNC-Chapel Hill coronavirus expert Ralph Baric was a distance swimmer on the N.C. State University swim team that won the 1976 ACC Championship. Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries

‘His Pop Pop fights the coronavirus’

Cristina Layne, Baric’s daughter, appreciated the personal guidance from one of the world’s leading experts as she navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic with her toddlers. The laughter Baric brought to their home while running around, rolling on the floor and letting his grandkids beat up on him for hours was just as important.

Layne’s 4-year-old son also loved watching Baric on the news, and he knows that his Pop Pop fights the coronavirus. He likes to pretend he can be a superhero, too, saying he’ll fight it with a microscope.

“I think it’s impressive to have the weight of the world on your shoulders and … he can let loose and relax for a few moments to give himself some peace and reduce any anxiety that he might be feeling,” Layne said.

Michael Baric, Baric’s son, is a swim coach at UNC-CH who faced the difficulties of trying to carefully operate an athletic program and team during the pandemic.

Once vaccines were on the horizon, the level of hope rose in the athletic department — not because the pandemic was almost over, but because there was something to look forward to, he said.

“It made me very proud, because I know he played a huge role in that,” Michael Baric said.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

For Toni, her husband brought a sense of relief during the pandemic and pride as she collected messages of gratitude from others.

One email came from a UNC-CH faculty member whose sister recovered from COVID-19 after being treated with Remdesevir. Another email was sent by a mom who thanked Baric for saving her son’s life.

Those words overshadowed the debunked conspiracy theories, social media misinformation and death threats that Baric faced as people questioned his role in the pandemic. It’s still hard to hear that, even though she knows Baric’s work has contributed to saving potentially millions of people.

“When you’re in the lab and reading the numbers and … we’ve got this many cases, or this many vaccines have gone out … you intellectually understand the impact,” said Toni, who also works at UNC.

“But when you get the emails from people that say, ‘You’ve done this for, you know, for somebody in my family, thank you.’ That’s when it really becomes personal,” she said, holding back tears.

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Ralph Baric, a leading coronavirus researcher, and his wife, Toni, both work at UNC Chapel Hill. “when you get the emails from people that say, ‘You’ve done this for, you know, for somebody in my family, thank you.’ That’s when it really becomes personal,” she said, holding back tears. Provided by Toni Baric

‘A debt of gratitude’

Baric set out to understand how coronaviruses work, how they replicate, how they are structured and why they cause disease.

“The state and the country and the world are really lucky that Ralph did that, starting decades ago,” said Johnston, a professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine and the executive director of the nonprofit organization Global Vaccines Inc.

Johnston said it’s safe to say that Baric’s work sped up vaccine development by at least 30 days. And currently, providers are administering about 1.8 million doses of the vaccine each day, on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We all owe [Baric] a debt of gratitude for his tireless work to combat this devastating virus,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in November after presenting Baric with a North Carolina Award, the highest civilian honor given by the state.

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Ralph Baric, 67, loves to go kayaking, fishing and bird watching with his wife as an escape from the stress of his coronavirus research. Provided by Toni Baric

Laying the groundwork

When asked about the impact of his work in COVID-19 vaccine development, Baric immediately rattled off the names of his collaborators.

He praised the work of Drs. Kizzmekia Corbett and Barney Graham, who worked at the National Institutes of Health, structural biologist Jason McClellen and his team at the University of Texas at Austin, and the 15 “unsung heroes” in Baric’s lab at UNC-CH who have worked non-stop during the pandemic.

Baric takes care of the people in his lab, and he’s preparing the next generation of physicians and scientists, particularly at UNC-CH.

“He’s good at giving people space to kind of grow intellectually and scientifically,” Sheahan said. “It just makes our collective effort that much more productive and impactful.”

The typical rollout time for a vaccine or new drug is anywhere from four to 10 years, Baric said. So to have multiple, effective vaccines and therapeutic antibody and drug treatments in a matter of months is an “unparalleled scientific achievement.”

In the late 1990s, Baric discovered that coronaviruses are emerging viruses and can adapt to different cells and easily jump between species, causing outbreaks in humans.

At the time, National Institutes of Health funding was dwindling, particularly to study a virus that at the time had not caused disease in humans. But Baric took that pressure and turned it into a critical discovery.

When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak occurred in 2002, Baric’s lab pioneered techniques to understand the genetic systems for coronavirus, which allows scientists to create and manipulate coronavirus in the lab. Scientists use that approach to understand which parts of the virus drive replication or cause disease, to quickly study new variants that emerge and to test ways to attack the virus when developing treatments.

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Ralph Baric spends time with his wife, Toni, and their four kids at the beach. Provided by Toni Baric

‘A very fine human being’

In 2012, his lab conducted similar research during the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak to identify drugs to put on a pharmacy shelf during an epidemic.

In 2015, Baric and his colleagues at UNC-CH started working on Remdesevir, without knowing that in a few years it would be saving lives of patients at the hospital across the street and at those around the country. More than half of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are given Remdesevir, according to biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences.

About two to three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Baric and his colleagues started testing mRNA-based vaccines against other coronaviruses. The mRNA vaccines essentially teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response that attacks the virus. Scientists like Baric have been pioneering that technology since the 1990s.

Their data was “spectacular” in animal models of human disease in how it could neutralize the virus through immune responses and protect young and old animals from lethal disease, Baric said. That data was rolling out just as SARS CoV-2 emerged, so Baric and other scientists used it as the foundation to develop vaccines to fight COVID-19.

In collaboration with the NIH, Baric’s lab was charged with developing similar animal models to test vaccine candidates by April 2020 and gather data by the end of June 2020, so it could be sent to the FDA to get approval for Phase 3 testing in humans, which began in August 2020.

“That trusting relationship and their expertise in animal model development allowed for early understanding of how efficacious COVID-19 vaccines were and undoubtedly led to the record speed of development,” Corbett said.

She is an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University who worked with Baric while earning her doctorate at UNC-CH. Corbett helped develop the Moderna vaccine as a research fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center.

Graham, former deputy director of the NIAID Research Center at NIH, called Baric “the premier coronavirologist in the world.

“He’s also just a very fine human being,” Graham said. “He’s just a good person, and he does things for the right reasons.”

Creativity in the lab and on the road

One thing that sets Ralph Baric apart from many other scientists is inherent creativity in science, Sheahan said. He thinks of new ways to discover new things by using the same tools that everybody else has.

Baric’s approach to science is similar to his approach for road trips with Toni, who loves riding shotgun with her goofy and brilliant husband of 37 years.

They get in the car with a general idea of what they want to do and what they want to see, always up for an adventure. The destination is often somewhere to go birding or kayaking, but they probably don’t have hotel reservations and they’ll stop to explore along the drive without knowing what they might find.

One trip ended at Chincoteague Island in Virginia on a winter night when the beach town hotels were nearly all booked. The Barics learned there was going to be a rocket launch nearby on Wallops Island to supply the International Space Station early the next morning. So they stayed in the last available hotel room, drove out the popular bridge at 4:30 in the morning, not even knowing which way to look for the rocket, and discovered something extraordinary.

That creativity, openness and curiosity are key to Baric’s discoveries in how coronaviruses work, too.

“If you have a set of experiments and you have a predetermined idea of how they should come out, then that kind of blinds you to other interesting data,” Toni said.

And when an experiment doesn’t turn out as expected, Toni Baric said her husband is able to see one little shred of something interesting that puts a different shine on the results.

Preparing for the next outbreak

While Baric and his team have hit remarkable milestones throughout the pandemic, the celebratory moments have been fleeting.

The day before a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel gave preliminary approval to Molnupiravir in November, the omicron variant emerged. Baric’s lab geared up to respond to that variant to understand its biology, its impact on therapeutics, vaccines and drugs, and how best to counter it if some of the products that are on a shelf lose their potency, Baric explained.

“There’s no time to celebrate,” Baric said. “There’s always another variant emerging, there’s other products that need to be tested. You just keep grinding on and on and on.”

There are 7 billion people on the planet, and the capacity for disease to spread globally is unparalleled in the history of humankind, Baric said. The preparedness to fight that takes an investment in public health and a commitment to studying all virus families before there’s a pandemic.

Coronaviruses were not viewed as dangerous for humans when Baric started studying them, but he saw their potential and stayed committed to understanding. He created a pipeline for treatments to future diseases.

“This isn’t just a one-off,” Fischer said. “He’s not investing in hope or luck, he’s investing in a process that will continue to identify therapeutics.

“It’s not just about this outbreak,” Fischer said.

Though people might not realize it, the hope that helped the world see the light at the end of the tunnel came from Baric’s decades of innovative work on a virus that, at the time, nobody cared or knew about.

And the work Baric is doing now will again give people hope in the form of science and medicine when the next outbreak inevitably strikes.

Tar Heel of the Year: Ralph Baric

Age: 67

Occupation: William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill; coronavirus expert and consultant to the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health

Hometown: Carneys Point, N.J.

Family: Wife, Toni; four children; one grandson and one granddaughter.

Education: N.C. State University, bachelor’s in zoology and doctorate in microbiology; University of Southern California School of Medicine, post-doctoral fellowship.

Accomplishments: Inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2021; UNC System O. Max Gardner Award in 2021; North Carolina Award in 2020.

Fun fact: Before the pandemic, Baric and his wife would eat lunch together nearly every day at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sometimes they would invite their son, Michael, who also works at UNC.

Previous Tar Heels of the Year

The News & Observer has recognized North Carolinians who have made significant contributions to the state — and beyond — since 1997. Here is a list of previous honorees.

1997: Hugh McColl, Bank of America

1998: John Hope Franklin, Duke University historian

1999: Franklin Graham, CEO, Samaritan’s Purse

2000: Larry Wheeler, Director, N.C. Museum of Art

2001: Molly Broad, UNC system president

2002: Kay Yow, NC State women’s basketball coach

2003: Jim Goodmon, Capitol Broadcasting

2004: Howard Manning Jr., State Superior Court Judge

2005: Martin Eakes, CEO, Self-Help Credit Union

2006: Ann, Jim Goodnight, SAS founder, community leaders

2007: Christine Mumma, N.C. Center on Actual Innocence

2008: Joe DeSimone, Chemist at UNC

2009: Phil Freelon, Architect

2010: Ray Buchanan, Stop Hunger Now

2011: Betsy Bennett, Director, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

2012: Robert Lefkowitz and Myron Cohen, Researchers at Duke and UNC

2013: Mary-Dell Chilton, Agricultural scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology

2014: Steve Schuster, Architect

2015: Aziz Sancar and Paul Modrich, Cancer researchers at UNC and Duke and Nobel Prize winners

2016: John Kane, Developer

2017: Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard, Chefs and restaurateurs

2018: The Rev. William Barber II, Pastor and activist

Runners-up: William Lewis, Rhiannon Giddens, Jaki Shelton Green and Richard Brunson

2019: Gregg Warren, Affordable housing developer

Runners-up: J. Cole, Sandi Macdonald, Bob Phillips and Tim Sweeney

2020: Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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