Covid vaccine: who is behind the Moderna breakthrough?

In March, as the scale of the global coronavirus crisis became clear, Donald Trump invited a group of pharmaceutical company bosses to the White House. At that meeting Stéphane Bancel, from the biotech firm Moderna, told the US administration that his Massachusetts-based company could have a vaccine ready within just a few months. On Monday, Moderna delivered.

News that its vaccine candidate – which still has to receive formal approval – is nearly 95% effective sent global stock markets higher and, coming on top of the similar recent announcement from the German/US collaboration BioNTech/Pfizer, injected some much-needed optimism about the possibility of a return to normal life.

The team behind the Moderna vaccine is led by Melissa Moore, the biotech firm’s chief scientific officer, in charge of its mRNA platform. Moore has spent her entire career analysing the protein structures at the centre of the new vaccine.

The biochemist first mapped out messenger ribonucleoprotein (mRNA) as a young researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1990s, and she spent most of her career in academia. In 2013, according to Science magazine, Moore changed tack. She wrote to Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pitch for a job.

In an email to Dr Tony de Fougerolles, then Moderna’s chief scientific officer, Moore said she was “arguably the world’s expert” in her chosen field. De Fougerolles invited her to join his scientific advisory board, and in 2016 Moore took over his role, giving up a tenured professorship at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

“I could have spent the next 15 years turning the crank, putting out more papers, training more students,” Moore told Science in 2017, “but when I’m 80 or 90 and I look back at my life, I would regret that decision.”

Moderna was founded in 2010 by a stem cell biologist, Derrick Rossi, and two financial backers, with the idea that mRNA – the molecule that sends genetic instructions from DNA to a cell’s protein-making machinery – could be re-engineered to develop drugs and vaccines.

Since Moore joined, it has grown into a major biotech firm. It has 23 mRNA drugs and vaccines in its portfolio, such as vaccines for the Zika virus, bird flu and herpes, with 14 in clinical studies. But none of the firm’s products has yet made it to market and the business is still loss-making.

The firm has had government funding – nearly $2.5bn – to aid the swift development of its Covid-19 vaccine, and it has been criticised for its pricing intentions, at $32-$37 (£24-£28) a dose.

The shares, however, have soared. Having hovered around the $20 level for the past two years, they took off in March. By Monday lunchtime in the US they were changing hands at more than $95, valuing the firm at about $38bn.

On the way up, the chief executive, Bancel, has cashed in, selling nearly $50m of shares from a plan set up in 2018. (The shares were sold automatically, when they hit a certain level – a similar arrangement to that used by the Pfizer boss, Albert Bourla, who received $5.6m from a share sale a week ago, just as Pfizer announced its vaccine success.) Other Moderna executives have also sold shares.

Moderna’s mRNA technology built on research by the Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman in their University of Pennsylvania lab in the early 2000s. The duo founded a company to develop drugs from their discoveries, but their effort never reached clinical trials.

In 2013, Karikó joined BioNTech, the German biotech firm that has developed a rival Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer.

Weissman, still at the University of Pennsylvania, has gone on to develop RNA vaccine candidates against flu, herpes and HIV, and hopes to launch human trials of these within a year.

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