With everything involved in creating a vaccine for a novel virus that has crippled the world economy and killed hundreds of thousands of people in just a few months, it’s ironic that the science is the least vexing of the challenge.
At least that’s the way it seems to Dr. Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer for Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company Moderna, one of a handful of companies leading the race for a vaccine for COVID-19.
It’s not the technology of their messenger platform, nor the availability of participants for phase 3 trials, which have begun. Rather, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines the safety and validity of vaccine contenders, the narrative around vaccines has become political, said Zaks Wednesday night during a special webinar hosted by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University.
“Unfortunately this has gotten political to the point that no one is having a discussion on the data and the content, but people musing that if (U.S. President Donald) Trump likes it, then it must be bad, and vice versa. I would rather we use the conversation to understand the data and why the FDA takes the stance that it does, and my goal is to make sure everyone understands that.”
Moderna’s technology uses synthetic code to take advantage of normal biological processes to express proteins and create a desired therapeutic effect. “This is not genetic engineering” Zaks told almost 200 participants, “and it’s transient. We know our platform works in cancer patients, now we just need to prove it works elsewhere.” Zaks also noted that the Moderna vaccine induces antibodies at levels higher than people who have clinically gotten sick.
As for a timeline, “We are months away from the first data and the first dose being deployed to those who need it the most; then in 2021 a ramp up of production by all companies, we should probably be equipped with several billion doses available for humanity next year. Whether they all work or can be deployed to the same extent remains to be seen.”
He says Moderna is looking at production of 500 million to a 1 billion doses, including primes and boosts. “Do the math: That’s how many people we will be protecting from Covid-19.”
Zaks dispelled some common misconceptions about vaccine trials, i.e., people being exposed to the virus. “We don’t purposefully expose trial participants to the virus; they are treated as if they’re not on trial. We select participants at a greater than average risk because of their occupations – and we know by chance that some unfortunately will get infected.”
He hopes to see people getting vaccinated by the end of winter and beginning of spring, and into summer, “so by the time the next school year rolls around, life can come back to normal.”
He also said that if the virus mutates, the route to a new vaccine will be quicker and shorter than the current one, given the technology and the platform is already proven. “In nine months, we’ve seen several mutations, however the mutations are such that they enable the virus to spread more easily, but not in terms of their resistance to an immune response.”
Zaks says Moderna’s vaccine will sell for $20 to $37 per dose depending on volume, the prices negotiated with various governments around the world, including Canada, but he was quick to add that the United States has made the largest purchase commitment, “and they will not be paying the highest price.”
When asked what keeps him up at night, he suggested that “on the cusp of one of the greatest achievements in science and medicine,” something that would remedy this great scourge on the population, that the world’s response would be “half don’t believe it because it’s something new,” while the other half are receptive. “This communication atmosphere has no middle path of common sense and I wish we could get to that.”
As for those who resist vaccines, whether because it’s a new technology or not, Zaks offered “a very Israeli answer: If you don’t want it, don’t take it! Demand will outstrip supply throughout the first half of the year next year, so those who don’t take it will stay home.” But anytime that there is not enough to go around, he says, “You will see a big change in public sentiment really quick… That said, once you have herd immunity, anyone vaccinated will be able to continue with their life, as life in their community will return to normal.”