The Race for a COVID Vaccine: Cambridge-based Moderna seeks victory
The race is on—and has been for several months—to develop a vaccine to effectively fight the novel coronavirus. Thousands of scientists, working together with corporations and governments around the world, have made efforts to find a vaccine capable of ending the pandemic, which worldwide has infected over 24 million people, and killed 875,000 as of September 5. Though preventive measures like testing, contact tracing, and social distancing are effective at slowing the spread of the disease, COVID-19 cannot be beaten without a vaccine.
As such, efforts to create a cure have been rapid and urgent, with a target of making a vaccine available to the public by January 2021. Time is of the essence, as every day without a vaccine means more lives lost. It seems that even herd immunity— in which enough individuals become immune through infection that the virus is unable to spread— may not provide relief, as the first case of reinfection by the virus was reported August 15. It is clear that we desperately need a coronavirus vaccine. Fortunately, resources are being pooled and funneled into funding the search to find a vaccine capable of defeating the virus.
Moderna, an American biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the corporations which has made promising strides in regard to finding a vaccine. Experts agree that from hundreds of vaccine candidates there are now five legitimate contenders, including products from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, and Moderna. Of these candidates, two of them, including Moderna’s, use messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccination technology. These mRNA medicines—like Moderna’s vaccine mRNA-1273—are essentially sets of instructions. They direct cells in the body to make proteins to fight or prevent disease. Researchers obtain the genetic sequence of the desired protein which will combat the virus, and then synthesize the corresponding mRNA sequence, which will create that protein. Once the mRNA sequence is delivered to the cell, the body takes over and begins manufacturing the protein to be expressed, making a natural and self-creating line of defense against an attacking virus like COVID-19.
In theory, this approach is very effective and boasts many advantages. The mRNA technology is able to closely mimic the body’s natural viral response, which can mean a more effective and prominent immune response. Additionally, by tapping into a great breadth of already sequenced immune profiles, the vaccine selection process of mRNA medicines is incredibly rapid—which is a necessity in the search for the COVID vaccine. But Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is not without controversy.
As part of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” which seeks to distribute a vaccine to the American public by January 2021, Moderna has received nearly $1 billion in government money, allocated by the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). With the majority of their research being funded on the backs of taxpayers, questions about the price and efficacy of Moderna’s product are swirling. Protesters gathered Friday August 28 outside of Moderna’s Cambridge headquarters to denounce the company’s planned asking price of $32-37 per dose. With two doses required, the price of a complete COVID treatment from Moderna could be over $70. Compared with the 3 dollar asking price of AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s product, this raises concern. And in light of Moderna’s skyrocketing stock, which has increased over $40 since the beginning of the pandemic as of September 4, fears of the company prioritizing profit over the widespread availability of the vaccine are legitimate. Additionally, mRNA vaccines—compared with more traditional vaccines like AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s COVID contender—are technology that is still rapidly developing. Great strides have been made in this field in the past ten years, even in the past two years, which is encouraging. But if approved, an mRNA vaccine to treat COVID would be the first of its kind. There are still many unknowns in mRNA vaccine technology, and less of a body of knowledge to support the performance of such products compared with traditional vaccines. Given this reality, spending billions of dollars on newborn technology is appropriately worrisome.
Though the thought of pouring millions into a company yet to come up with a product feels risky, this is the reality of research. The process of developing a vaccine often takes 10-15 years, which puts the rapid pace that researchers have set on the coronavirus vaccine into perspective. In the United States where the Federal Government has put nearly a billion dollars into Moderna alone, it is understandable to start asking questions about where the vaccine is. But—as hard as it is to say when thousands of people continue to die each day from the virus—we must be patient.
Moderna has entered into Phase III clinical trials as of July 27, meaning that they are now administering the vaccine to thousands of people. They have already produced promising results of a strong immune
response in Phase II trials, which were tested on the 18 to 55 year-old age group. Though they are yet to publish results from expanded Phase II trials which include older people, a small trial of 20 older adults aged 56 to 70 offered similarly promising results, with similarly mild side effects. If Moderna’s Phase III trials match their Phase II performance, the next step is official approval by the FDA to begin the widespread distribution of the vaccine. A vaccine is coming. If not from Moderna, perhaps from one of the other groups which have entered Phase III trials, like Pfizer—who has also opted to pursue an mRNA product—or AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
Until then, we must rely on the measures currently in place to slow the spread of the virus before the vaccine can take over. Given the typical timeline of vaccine development of 10-15 years, the progress that Moderna and its competitors are currently making is breathtaking. In a June 17 interview, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel suggested a high probability of his company obtaining Phase III vaccine efficacy results by Thanksgiving, which would allow their product to reach distribution in early 2021. Since then Moderna’s process has been on pace, as Phase III trials are well underway and their progress towards the goal of 30,000 volunteers, with an emphasis on the inclusion of at-risk minority groups, is steady.
For at least the next several months, social distancing, frequent testing, and wearing face coverings are here to stay. These practices will play a critical role in minimizing the toll of the virus which has upended life as we know it, until the arrival of a vaccine. Even then, these practices that we have grown accustomed to will not disappear all at once. If all goes to plan, Moderna will have one million doses ready for distribution by January 2021, with tens of millions of doses to be distributed throughout the year. With over 330 million people living in the United States, it is likely that we will not see a true end to the pandemic until the end of 2021 or even 2022. It is thus all of our responsibility to adhere to safety guidelines currently in place, for everyone’s sake. Even when the vaccine arrives, it will be crucial to continue these practices until the vaccine is available to all. Science is moving as quickly as it can, and thanks to valiant efforts on behalf of researchers to find an effective vaccine, the end of the COVID pandemic is in sight. Let us do our part, too, by controlling what we can and staying safe and positive.