After less than a year in the making, Moderna announced promising results for its coronavirus vaccine on Monday, saying it plans to apply for emergency use authorization in the United States and Europe.
In early January, when the novel coronavirus was still a mysterious disease in China, the U.S. biotech company started chasing a potential vaccine.
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said he read an article about the coronavirus in Wuhan, which was quickly spreading throughout the region at the time.
Bancel said he immediately reached out to the Vaccine Research Center at the U.S.’ National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to Boston Magazine. He wanted to start looking into a vaccine using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology — an approach that had never been licensed before.
Moderna and the NIH had previously been working on mRNA technology, a new way to make vaccines without using weakened or dead pieces of a virus.
Traditional vaccines are made from a weakened or a dead virus, which prompts the body to fight off the invader and build immunity. These vaccines take time to develop as scientists have to grow and inactivate an entire germ or its proteins.
But Moderna’s mRNA technology used synthetic genes, which can be generated and manufactured in weeks and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines.
The mRNA technology meant Moderna only needed the coronavirus’s genetic sequence to make a vaccine and did not have to grow a live virus in a lab.
And on Jan. 11, Chinese health authorities released the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus.
That’s all Moderna needed to get started.
Two days later, the company and the NIH designed the sequence for its coronavirus vaccine, called the mRNA-1273.
“Two days is very possible because from the moment when the sequence of virus was published by China scientists, it became public … Any person can take this information and do whatever he or she wants,” Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal, explained.
“In this case, Moderna wanted to design a platform to use a vaccine … They wanted to know what is the sequence for the spike protein in the virus.”
After Moderna successfully designed the sequence for the vaccine, the company moved its candidate from a lab to human trials within two months.
On March 4, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved clinical trials for Moderna’s vaccine, and on March 16, the first participant in the Phase 1 trial was vaccinated.
The mRNA technology is what put Moderna ahead in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, Abrahamyan said.
“Moderna had been developing mRNA vaccines before this. None of them had been approved yet, but now this was a pathway to develop these future vaccines,” he said.
“Moderna was risky in using this new technology. Most pharma companies prefer to use old-fashioned technologies.”
He said the risk seemed to have paid off, as the Phase 3 results Moderna released Monday looked “very promising,” and could possibly change the way we produce vaccines in the future
Abrahamyan added that although the vaccine was developed in less than a year — vaccines normally take up to 10 years to make — it does not mean safety was compromised. It’s just that the mRNA technology allows scientists to produce vaccines at a quicker speed.
“The mRNA approach allows you to skip many steps of the traditional vaccine production pipeline because you don’t have to choose the viral strain or grow the virus in a lab, which is very time-consuming,” he said.
Instead, the mRNA technology skips this step, and scientists are able to produce a synthetic version by using a computer.
Moderna has been manufacturing its mRNA-1273 vaccine for several months and says approximately 20 million doses will be available by the end of the year.
The company also remains on track to manufacture 500 million to one billion doses globally in 2021, it said.
Canada signed a deal in September for 20 million doses to be delivered at the beginning of 2021, with the option of increasing the supply to 56 million doses.
Health Canada has been conducting a rolling review of vaccine data as it becomes available, and last week said it has “similar timelines” to the U.S. and Europe for approval of some vaccine candidates.
Last week officials said Canada could get its first batch of vaccines — including Moderna’s — in January or February of 2021, with a goal of vaccinating the “majority” of Canadians who want one by September.