The speed is made possible by a new technology: mRNA vaccines, which have the potential to fix many of the pitfalls of traditional vaccines, which take a long time to manufacture, aren’t 100% effective and, if they are made with a live virus, have an outside chance of making you sick. mRNA vaccines work kind of like a computer program: After the mRNA “code” is injected into the body, it instructs the machinery in your cells to produce particular proteins. Your body then becomes a vaccine factory, producing parts of the virus that trigger the immune system. In theory, this makes them safer and quicker to develop and manufacture, which is why Moderna has thrown all its weight behind this new COVID-19 vaccine, pausing enrollment of several of its other clinical trials in the meantime.
It’s a big bet for the ten-year-old company, which currently has 24 products in its pipeline—but nothing yet on the market. The biotech sports a huge market cap of $17.5 billion, but it posted a net loss of $514 million on revenues of just $60 million last year. And most of that incoming cash came from government grants and research collaborations with big pharmaceutical companies.
The prospect that Moderna may have the technology to compress years into a few months and take on a virus that has crippled the global economy has investors salivating. The company’s stock price has jumped from $19.23 on January 2, 2020, to a recent $53.19. That’s made Bancel, who owns roughly 9% of Moderna’s stock, a new billionaire, with a net worth of $1.6 billion.
“If it works, we might have the best vaccine technology in the world,” Bancel says.
But that’s a big “if.” No mRNA vaccine currently exists on the market, and nobody knows for sure if the technology will work, much less against this virus. To date, nobody’s been able to make a vaccine that works against a human coronavirus.
Bancel, 47, himself wasn’t always a believer in the technology. When he first was approached with the idea of building a company around mRNA, he balked. “[I] had a lot of learning to do on the molecule. How do you make it stable? How do you make it not immunogenic? How do you make it pure enough so that you can inject a human safely?” he recalls.
Born in Marseille, France, Bancel was getting his master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, when he first learned about mRNA in the mid-1990s. mRNA (the “m” stands for “messenger”) transports genetic information from your DNA to ribosomes, the factories in your cell that make the proteins that keep your body working. It’s also highly unstable and quickly degrades within the human body. That notion of mRNA being fragile and difficult to work with stuck with him.
By 2010, Bancel, who also has an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, was CEO of French biotech company bioMérieux when a venture capitalist named Noubar Afeyan approached him with a plan to create a company that used mRNA to create new disease treatments and vaccines. Bancel was skeptical at first, but Afeyan won him over. “If this is real, this could be a new class of medicine,” Bancel remembers thinking. Bancel joined Afeyan and a team of scientists from MIT and Harvard to start Moderna later that year.
Since then the company has faced a series of setbacks and skepticism. In its early years, Moderna was criticized for being secretive about its data, prompting an editorial in Nature Biotechnology. Several years ago it dropped one of its most-touted drugs it was developing in partnership with pharmaceutical company Alexion, ALXN 1540, a treatment for Crigler-Najjar syndrome, a rare genetic blood disorder, from its pipeline indefinitely. And while some of the vaccines in its pipeline now show promise, that hasn’t always been the case.
“The first Zika vaccine that Moderna was working on had poor efficacy,” says Justin Richner, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, “but then they were able to retool that vaccine and have a better response.”
Bancel is clear that Moderna needs more data before the company can declare its coronavirus vaccine effective. But he thinks that the nine vaccine candidates that Moderna has already tested in early clinical trials have shown evidence that its platform is solid. “I’m not a betting person, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” he says.