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What we know about Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate — and what we don’t

The drug company Moderna has released encouraging data from research on its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, but it is nonetheless raising hopes. Noubar Afeyan is a co-founder and chairman of Moderna and the CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital firm that helped launch Moderna. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As William reported, the promising news from Moderna raised hopes about what could happen next year.

    It's important to remember the data have not been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal yet. And the company has received significant funding from the federal government and from taxpayers, nearly $2.5 billion for research, development and potential supply.

    Let's hear more about this news from one of the leading executives involved. He is Noubar Afeyan. He is a co-founder and chairman of Moderna. He is the CEO of Flagship Pioneering. It's a venture capital firm that helped launch Moderna.

    Noubar Afeyan, thank you very much for joining us.

    And this promising news today, how confident are you that this could help put an end to all the human suffering we're seeing now?

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    Well, Judy, thanks for having me today.

    You know, in the science and in clinical research, confidence is a relative term. Certainly, the data we have today encourages us to go forward, to go forward rapidly, to begin to make preparations, upon regulatory approval, to have the vaccine get out.

    The challenge that we face broadly around the world is so grave that we needed to go through these tests, but also to be ready to start making a difference. And I certainly believe that we have the basis to do that today, again, subject to regulatory review.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you put in layperson's terms why it is you think you were so — you were able to achieve this high level of what's called efficacy, what is it, 94.5 percent success, in helping make people immune from the virus? How were you able to do it?

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    Well, Judy, the underlying technology, which is, in fact, quite new and unprecedented, is called messenger RNA.

    Messenger RNA is a molecule that exists in every one of our cells and is the intermediary between DNA, which we know to be where the information is stored about every aspect of life, and proteins, which are the actors in life, which are the elements that do the things that make us function as humans.

    And so the intermediary molecule has never been tried as a form of a drug or a vaccine that could actually provide information to cells that they could then convert into a protein to have a resulting function.

    In this case, the intermediary molecule that we use coded for the protein, the spike protein, now famous, for this virus that actually is its vulnerability in terms of the immune reaction.

    So, what we did is, we took the sequence, the DNA sequence, of this spike protein, quickly encoded it into RNA, a molecule that we have had a decade-long program to convert into a substance that could be used as drugs or vaccines.

    And that information was then provided into the volunteers we had that we tested it on, so that their own cells make this protein. When their immune system sees this protein, it thinks that it's been infected and starts fighting back.

    Now, of course, in our case, there is no infection, and so the immune system gets activated, learns to know what to defend for, and waits on guard, until the virus shows up. And when the virus shows up, unlike an immune system that is now lost and can't recognize the threat, then the immune system rapidly activates, and knows exactly what to do to neutralize the threat.

    And based on all of that, we believed we had a pretty good chance, although we didn't know what numbers would result, that a preponderance of the cases of infection in our trial would be in people who did not get the vaccine.

    And that's, in fact, what we saw.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Complicated, but I'm sure for people who want to try to understand it, they will be able to understand it.

    And what about the refrigeration, the freezing that's needed? How much difference will that make in what your vaccine will require?

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    What we announced as well today, based on very recent data, is that not only could we keep our vaccine at minus-20 degrees stably for a very long time, but we could also take it out of that condition, keep it refrigerated for now up to 30 days without any loss of the vaccine's efficacy.

    And, further yet, you can take it out of the fridge, because, in order to use it, you're not going to take people into a fridge. You're going to take it out of the fridge, put it on a bench, on a table, and, actually, it's stable there for another 12 hours.

    So, from the logistics standpoint, which if we were only going to give this vaccine to a dozen or 100 people, this would not be a big deal. But, if we're talking hundreds of millions of people, then, indeed, you need to figure out, where is it stored for long periods, where is it stored at the point of administration, and how long can you work with it on any given day?

    And we're very pleased that it looks as though this vaccine should behave the way many other vaccines do in this regard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, it's estimated the federal government is putting something like $2.5 billion into Moderna's work.

    Is that accurate? Could you have done this without federal money, and how much private money went into it?

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    Well, I should say, indeed, there has been substantial capital deployed by the government effort, not only just with Moderna, but almost all — in fact, all of the efforts that are advanced received government money of one sort or another.

    And this was largely to make sure that everybody went as fast as safely as possible, which required extra expenditures than would have made economic sense to do. We also had, fortunately, a set of partnerships with the government that preceded the pandemic, particularly with BARDA, with whom we have worked on Zika vaccines and the like.

    And so, based on that history, when this started, very quickly, our government colleagues basically said, look, don't slow down because of lack of capital. They put some capital up front, and they said, look, we will go try to get more.

    And so what we did as a company is reached out to our shareholders and, through a series of equity raises, added yet another billion dollars, at risk, to be able to accelerate this program.

    And then, as the year has gone on, we have struck agreements with the U.S. government through OWS, Operation Warp Speed, to supplement our resources. And we are absolutely pleased that that capital has been put to work, developing one of the most advanced vaccines and hopefully one of the more potent solutions to this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, because of that federal funding, government money, there's a progressive nonprofit consumer advocacy group called Public Citizen here in the U.S., that is saying, because of that, that what Moderna should be doing is providing access based on who needs the vaccine, rather than on countries with the ability to pay.

    And they are saying, because of U.N. protocols, this is something that Moderna needs to do.

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    Well, Judy, the distribution of the vaccine will be done through governments.

    We have worked not only with the U.S. government, but many other governments, to enter into contracts to supply them the vaccine. And we also are in active discussions with COVAX, which is the entity that, in fact, is charged with securing vaccine supplies to low- and middle-income countries, as are many of the other vaccine suppliers.

    And our intention and hope is that our vaccine will be part of that suite of solutions offered to all countries through their government.

    So, the good news is, we're not the ones allocating our vaccine within a country. And then, to get to that country, we have had standard agreements made with multiple countries that have already signed up and some yet that we're actively discussing, so we can get — have the biggest impact we can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's a question we wanted to pose, and we thank you for the answer. We thank you for talking with us.

    Noubar Afeyan, we appreciate it.

  • Noubar Afeyan:

    Thank you so much.

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