Argonne X-Ray Machine Plays Key Role in COVID-19 Vaccine Development

By Robert J. Kriss, C2ST Editor

In 1995 Argonne National Laboratory built a machine known as the Advanced Photon Source (“APS”) which generates X-rays capable of detecting the atomic structure of many different substances, including viruses.  Over the last two and a half decades, scientists have used the APS to help develop more effective vaccines against infectious diseases.  

After the outbreak of COVID-19, more than 80 groups of scientists utilized the APS for more than 10,000 hours to better understand the atomic structure of the virus that causes COVID-19.  This work, as well as previous work developing vaccines for other viruses, enabled Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna to develop their vaccines in record time. 

There will be new viruses in the future, including variants of SARS CoV-2.  The good news is that with scientific instruments like the APS and the lessons learned about vaccine development so far, we will likely be able to develop effective vaccines in even less time than it took to develop the COVID-19 vaccines.  The COVID-19 vaccines took about a year to develop and obtain FDA approval.  Previously, the shortest time for the development and approval of a vaccine was four years for the mumps.   

Science is the way we protect ourselves against a hostile microbial world.  It is not economically efficient for corporations to build complex research instruments such as the APS, which covers the area of many football fields and cost billions of dollars to build and operate.  Instead, it is more economic for the government to build the instrument and for corporations to share using it.   Adequate public funding of scientific research and the development of research instruments such as the APS is literally a matter of life and death. 

For more information about how scientists have used the APS to help develop life-saving treatments and vaccines, click here: