Almost all people hospitalized for Covid-19 have not been vaccinated — 99.9% as of May, to be exact, according to a recent Associated Press report.
But according to Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, 13% of U.S. adults said they will receive “absolutely no” COVID-19 vaccine as recently as late May. Another 12% wanted to “wait until it’s been available for a while to see how it works for other people.”
Vaccinating the majority of the population is the best way to prevent further increases in constantly evolving variants, such as the current delta variant, which is spreading rapidly in the US and other countries.
Still, Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan understands the hesitation in getting a new vaccine.
“The vaccines came out in about [short] time frame that people automatically assumed, it can’t possibly be safe,” Afeyan said during a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May.
“In fact, there were many, many people on television who held the view that – experts for that matter – that if it is done in less than five years, it must be unsafe, which is all untrue.
“Still, people get confused.”
What people may not understand is that extensive research has gone into mRNA technology and other mRNA vaccines for years. That decade plus experience and the innovation of mRNA technology itself enabled Moderna to produce its Covid mRNA vaccine so quickly when the pandemic hit. And it could also change the future of medicine.
Here’s what you need to know about how the Moderna Covid-19 mRNA vaccine was developed.
The timeline: a vaccine in less than a year
It is true that Moderna’s mRNA vaccine was ready remarkably quickly, as was Pfizer’s.
Chinese scientists put the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus online on January 11. For the next two days, the NIH and Moderna used it to map out a vaccine.
Afeyan recalls receiving an important phone call regarding the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. “January 21st, my daughter’s birthday… I got a call from Davos [during The World Economic Forum] from the CEO of Moderna,” he says. Bancel had been approached by a number of public health groups at the conference to “press” him to work on a vaccine.
“We decided literally overnight … to try this,” Afeyan said at MIT.
Moderna delivered the first doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the NIH for testing on Feb. 24, 2020, and “the first Moderna shot went into a volunteer’s arm in Seattle on March 16, 2020,” Afeyan said.
After testing the Moderna vaccine on 30,000 volunteers, on Dec. 18, 2020, the FDA approved it for public emergency use, and three days after that, the first Moderna vaccines were administered to frontline health professionals, Afeyan said.
More than ten years of research to innovate mRNA as a ‘bioplatform’
One of the reasons Moderna’s mRNA Covid vaccine development progressed so quickly is because scientists have been working with mRNA for years.
“Messenger RNA technologies have been in development for more than 15 years from a basic science perspective,” Kizzmekia Corbet, the scientific leader of the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at NIH, which helped make the vaccine possible, told the NIH Record.
And Moderna has been working with mRNA technology in numerous therapeutic areas since its inception in 2010, including cancer therapies, Afeyan tells The Washington City Times Make It (through a publicist), and with the clinical development of mRNA-based antiviral vaccines since 2015.
What Moderna did over many of those years was to develop mRNA as what scientists call a bioplatform, enabling faster vaccine development. Bioplatforms are systems that can be easily scaled and adapted for many different diseases.
Traditionally, developing a vaccine was essentially a custom effort.
“The advantages of a bioplatform are the ability to quickly re-deploy the platform once it is established and refined – in the case of Moderna’s mRNA platform, to create and test new vaccines based on novel viral sequences,” Afeyan tells The Washington City Times Make It (through a publicist).
All of this makes mRNA vaccines virtually programmable. Corbet and Bancel describe the process as “plug and play”.
“MRNA is always made up of four of the same letters, Bancel said in Andreessen Horowitz’s December podcast, “Bio Eats the World.” (MRNA is genetic material, similar to DNA, so the “code” is expressed with letters.) It’s “the four life letters, like zeros and one in software,” Bancel said. “This is like software or LEGO.”
“The only difference between ‘mRNA vaccines’ is “the order of the letter; the zeros and ones of life,” Bancel said. “The production process is the same, the equipment is the same, with the same operators. It’s the same. And that’s why we were able to go so fast.”
Faster vaccine development in the future
Bioplatforms will drive change far beyond the Covid pandemic.
Judy Savitskaya and Jorge Conde, biotech investors for Andreessen Horowitz, a top Silicon Valley investment house, compare how bioplatforms can transform the biotechnology industry with what the ongoing assembly lines did for the auto industry: cars — where commodities like steel and rubber originated handcrafted to the end of a trickle of early cars—to assembly line production, with standard components that can be replicated for new models,” they wrote in a January blog post.
(Andreessen Horowitz is not an investor in Moderna, Pfizer or BioNTech, according to a firm spokesperson.)
The Covid-19 vaccine is an example of how mRNA can be used.
Moderna has 24 mRNA vaccines and therapies under investigation, and 14 have begun clinical trials, according to the company’s quarterly investment documents published in May. Moderna’s pipeline of mRNA treatments includes a Zika vaccine, HIV vaccine, and a cancer vaccine, to name a few.
The same dynamic enabled Pfizer and BioNTech, who collaborated to create the other mRNA Covid vaccine currently in use in the US, “to rapidly redirect its mRNA technology platform from cancer to COVID within weeks; the company estimates that it can produce updated versions against emerging mutant strains in as little as six weeks,” write Savitskaya and Conde.
Pfizer and BioNTech are also working on an mRNA vaccine to prevent the flu.
“[T]these programs are just the first in a long list that will benefit from the same underlying [bio]platforms,” Savitskaya and Conde wrote. “The emergence of productive platforms will affect much more than just vaccines. It will transform all areas of biotechnology from small molecule discovery, protein engineering, genome editing, gene delivery, cell therapy and more.”
Even with all this hard work and innovation, even Afeyan says Moderna was lucky enough to be able to move so quickly.
“I’m actually quite surprised,” Afeyan said at MIT. “Murphy’s Law was on vacation, on a full year sabbatical and so many things that could have gone wrong just didn’t happen.”
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