Stéphane Bancel says data showing 95% efficacy for his company’s vaccine means that it may be able to start distributing its vaccine in late December, pending a green light from the FDA.
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel slept for 3 hours on Sunday night. At 4:00 am, he went for a run, and then a few hours later led an all-company meeting. The subject: preliminary data from Moderna’s phase 3 trial of a Covid-19 vaccine, which found that the vaccine was about 95% effective at preventing the illness. Bancel says that some people in America may start getting vaccinated as early as next month.
“I couldn’t have expected better results,” Bancel says. To top it off, the data showed that 11 people in the placebo arm of the trial contracted severe Covid-19, but no one in the vaccinated group got a severe form of the disease. “It means that if you get the Moderna vaccine, you have a 95% chance of getting no disease, and if you do get it you will get a mild disease,” he says. “That’s fantastic.”
It’s also good news for Bancel personally, who owns roughly 9% of the company. As the stock rose 10% today, Bancel’s net worth increased to $3 billion. Others have profited as well. MIT scientist Robert Langer, who cofounded Moderna and has a 3% stake in the company, saw his net worth increase to about $1.2 billion. Harvard professor and 3.5% equity stake owner Timothy Springer, an early investor in the company, is now worth $1.6 billion.
The key to success seems to be Moderna’s mRNA technology, which relies on messenger RNA to deliver instructions to the cells in your body. These cells then produce small parts of the Covid-19 virus that are just enough to trigger the immune system, producing antibodies and memory cells that will leap into action if you come in contact with the virus again. The study data seems to suggest this should help people across the board. The trial consisted of 30,000 people in total, with broad diversity in racial and ethnic makeup, as well as age (around 7,000 were over 65, the group most at risk for severe forms of the disease).
Moderna began work on its Covid-19 vaccine in January, and shipped its first batch to the National Institute of Health for a phase one study just 42 days later. That’s incredibly fast, considering that most vaccines take years to make. (For more detail, see our in-depth feature from May.) And Moderna isn’t the only one making swift progress: Last week, Pfizer released results that found its mRNA vaccine, produced in partnership with German company BioNTech, was 90% effective at preventing Covid-19. The results validated a $1 billion bet that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made last spring on the project.
“[It’s a] pretty impressive outcome,” says Alan Carr, a biotech analyst at Needham, about Moderna’s data. “There seems to be a pattern with the two mRNA vaccines which suggests the technology is pretty helpful for infectious diseases.”
But Bancel doesn’t feel like he’s in competition with Pfizer — or any other vaccine company, for that matter. “As I’ve said all along since we started chasing this virus in January, no one company can supply the planet,” Bancel says. “We need three or four vaccines to make it to the finish line…the success of Pfizer is a great thing for the world and for the country.”
Carr agrees: “For Covid-19, I think demand is going to outstrip supply,” he says. “Both of these vaccines will be sought after.”
Perhaps some of the lack of competitive feeling stems from Moderna’s global partnerships. The company has already entered agreements to supply several countries with Covid-19 vaccines, including the U.S., the E.U., Japan and Canada. While the deals with several of the countries remain a secret, the Trump administration announced in August that it reached a deal to buy 100 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine for about $1.5 billion.
Unlike Pfizer, which has done most of its research and clinical trials in-house, Moderna has partnered closely with the U.S. government since the early days of the pandemic. Bancel says that the company worked closely with Dr. Fauci’s team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to conduct its clinical trials. The federal government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), gave the company a little less than $1 billion to study the vaccine. All of this government money leads to a vaccine that costs the government about $25 per dose, and will likely be given for free to the public according to Bancel. He says that they have “millions of doses” that are ready to distribute. Pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS, plus McKesson Corporation, the largest distributor of the flu vaccine in the U.S, are already studying how to most efficiently distribute the vaccine.
Moderna still has a few hurdles to overcome before the vaccine will be available to the public. First, it needs to finish its phase three clinical trial, provide the data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and get emergency authorization to distribute the vaccine. Bancel estimates that the phase three trial will meet a key data target within the next two weeks, and plans to file with the FDA for an emergency use authorization in late November or early December (the trial itself will last another two years as participants’ health continues to be monitored). If that time frame holds, some people in the U.S. — likely healthcare workers at first — could start receiving the vaccine by the end of 2020.
Experts have also worried that Moderna’s vaccine will need to be refrigerated at low temperatures, around -4° Fahrenheit, which could cause issues with the supply chain. The company put at least some of those fears to rest this morning, when it announced new data that shows its vaccine can be kept in a standard refrigerator for up to 30 days. This could be an advantage over Pfizer, whose Covid-19 vaccine must be stored at -94° Fahrenheit.
Finally, there is also the risk that the Covid-19 virus could mutate, rendering the current vaccine ineffective. This doesn’t worry Bancel. “The adaptation to new strains is possible” he says, “but mRNA is fantastic because you can just swap a new strain and run with it.” He expects that if another version of Covid-19 began making the rounds, it would take Moderna even fewer than its current 42 days to create a vaccine.
Right now, however, all those worries are for the future. After a hectic day, Bancel is excited about the prospect of finally getting some rest this evening. “I’m looking forward to going home tonight and having a nice bottle of wine and going to bed early,” he says.
-By Leah Rosenbaum, Forbes Staff