One-On-One with Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel on the search for a COVID-19 vaccine (I AM BIO Podcast 3/30)
As countless people, companies, and organizations work together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, one company is working to eradicate the virus itself at record speed. BIO CEO Jim Greenwood recently spoke with Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, which is racing to develop a vaccine to stop this deadly disease in its tracks. During an exclusive interview for the I AM BIO podcast on March 30th, Bancel describes the biotech’s search for a safe and effective vaccine to eradicate the COVID-19 virus.
Greenwood: Would you talk about the historic speed with which you turned the viral sequence into a potential vaccine?
Bancel: On January 11, the Chinese government put the genetic sequence of the virus online. Working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we worked to decide and design the vaccine on our computers. We did not need the access to the live virus, but instead, used the genetic makeup of a virus, its sequence, which is something that we believe is more important than the physical virus. The Moderna team worked in Boston while the NIH team worked outside of D.C. and we then compared notes. We independently analyzed the genetic information and shared the different thoughts of how we planned to design the vaccine. What is very encouraging is that both teams independently came to exactly the same antigen – the same protein of a virus – that we thought was the most potent vaccine against this virus.
Greenwood: How will Moderna make sure that the vaccine, should it succeed, will be affordable and accessible to every single person who needs it, which is essentially everyone in the planet?
Bancel: We understand that this is an extreme public health situation and we take that very seriously. As you can imagine, we are focusing on getting to a Phase 2 study while planning already for a Phase 3 and making the Phase 3 material. The entire team is focused on doing the work every day, so we have not had detailed discussions about pricing. We don't have the time given the other priorities we have and doing so early is not appropriate. What I can tell you is we are highly aware this is a public health pandemic. We believe this is not going to go away quickly, so we believe a vaccine is a critical component of public health action to stop this pandemic. We will work with government agencies to make sure that it is affordable.
Greenwood: What is the difficulty about trying to combat viruses?
Bancel: One of the things that excites us a lot about messenger RNA, as a new technology for vaccines that we think is going to be over time extremely disruptive to the older technology for vaccines, is we have the ability to combine multiple complex antigens into one vial. What I think is remarkable, and that very few people in the public appreciate, is if you look at the last 40 years since the early 1980s, there have been two to three new viruses discovered by scientists each year, but the vast majority of viruses do not have commercial vaccines available in the United States.
Greenwood: What is the most optimistic and the most realistic timetable you see for your vaccine?
Bancel: It's a complicated question. We are highly aware that everyone is asking the question of when. As a team, we aim to move extremely quickly while working with the FDA. We're having frequent dialogue with the FDA, and I need to give them my kudos. They have worked as hard as we have worked. We see emails at any time of the day and night, seven days a week, from the agency. They are extremely receptive and reactive to our requests for discussions to together find the right path. This is not at all business as usual. They are doing a remarkable job in an extremely collaborative manner.
Our goal is to go into Phase 2 clinical trials as soon as we safely can. Weeks ago, we began making the Phase 2 material because it was the right thing to do from a public health standpoint given the pandemic. The Phase 2 study will include both a group of healthy young adults and a group of healthy elderly adults, so that we can start to understand the safety and the immunogenicity profile. Then we plan to move into a Phase 3 trial. Is there an upside scenario where we could be able to have thousands of participants dosed and have that dataset to submit to the FDA for an accelerated approval next year in 2021? Yes, that is possible. But, it will require that everything goes to plan.
Check out the full interview and others on the I AM BIO podcast by visiting www.bio.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
For more information on what BIO is doing to fight COVID-19, visit www.bio.org/coronavirus.