Moderna Booster | Stories | Notre Dame Review
Moderna began researching mRNA drugs in 2011, and for nearly a decade few people other than venture capitalists had heard of the biotech startup. By early 2020, the mRNA technology the company and its investors were banking on had not resulted in any product. Then the green flags were waved in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Moderna was in an ideal position to meet this global need – and to benefit from taxpayers’ investment in accelerated vaccine development. The messengera new book by the wall street journal journalist Peter Loftus ’93, gives readers a look at Moderna before and after its breakthrough.
“Moderna was kind of a mystery figure in the pandemic,” says Loftus. “They were virtually unknown before the pandemic, then found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right technology to lead a response to the COVID pandemic.”
Covering pharmaceuticals and biotechnology for the Log, Loftus followed the race for vaccines in real time. Amid the deluge of news about his pace during the pandemic, he became more curious about Moderna as his mRNA research became relevant.
Messenger RNA technology is changing the nature of disease treatment. Traditional viral drugs and vaccines introduce specific proteins into the body to trigger immune responses. Moderna designs mRNA-based drugs to provide a script for the body to make its own disease-fighting proteins.
The company’s COVID mRNA vaccine enters a muscle cell and produces part of the spike protein found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. The cells then break down the mRNA while the spike protein triggers an immune response that teaches the body how to fight COVID.
“With Moderna in particular, they spent 10 years before that really trying to pioneer this messenger RNA technology that they saw as a platform to design a bunch of new vaccines and drugs, not just a product,” says Loftus. “Until 2020, there had never been a drug or vaccine based on messenger RNA technology. Even though Moderna believed in the potential and some pundits and investors believed in its potential, there were still plenty of skeptics who thought it might not amount to much.
Moderna still pulled ahead, finishing the race in second place with a photo-finish behind another mRNA vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in collaboration with BioNTech. Loftus was struck by the speed and effectiveness of new mRNA vaccines. Combined with the appeal of the little guy from Moderna, it caught the bug for a fascinating book idea.
“Normally any vaccine – and really a lot of drugs too – can take years and years to develop,” he says. “To go from that to – actually, the timeline was January to December 2020 – 11 months, that’s pretty unprecedented.”
Despite such a quick turnaround, Moderna has created a vaccine so effective it may have surprised even the company’s biggest believers.
After a decade of devoting resources to mRNA technology, Moderna finally had a product – a product that would be part of a landmark vaccination campaign that administered more than 12.3 billion doses worldwide. Moderna’s share price, meanwhile, rose from less than $20 per share at the start of 2020 to over $400 per share in September 2021. At one point, the company’s market value briefly topped $200 billion.
Inspired by Moderna’s speed, efficiency and dramatic recovery, Loftus decided to expand its newspaper reporting by The messenger, published in July by Harvard Business Review Press. He took a summer 2021 leave from the wall street journaltracking down current and former Moderna executives to grasp the extent of the company’s pandemic transformation.
The messenger features colorful characters like Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, “very motivated from an early age to be the CEO of a company at some point, and ideally to be the CEO of a company that was starting from scratch,” says Loftus. “That’s what he did with Moderna, and he was very tough and ruthless, to the point where there was definitely some bad blood at some point between him and some of the early employees.”
Much of the action takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Kendall Square neighborhood near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, what Loftus calls a “hotbed of biotechnology.” This location is important for another trend Loftus explores in the book: the emergence of venture-capital-empowered biotech research startups to compete with big pharma.
“Moderna is really a creature of this change over the last two decades where it’s not just these well-known big pharma companies that are coming up with these new drugs. There’s this whole new ecosystem of biotech companies that are really harnessing incredible discoveries in research labs,” he says. “And there’s this whole financial structure for that, venture capitalists. They have tons of money to invest, and it’s money from university endowments or pensions, and they’re looking for big returns. One way to do that is to invest in those biotech companies, knowing that some might fail, but others might succeed. There can be a big payoff for that. , both financially, and for science and medicine.
The success of developing a COVID vaccine does not bow to a perfectly wrapped story about the convergence of science and business. A host of questions simmer about vaccine hesitancy, declining vaccine protection, the profits of government-funded companies, and the U.S. healthcare system itself, Loftus says. The biotech and pharmaceutical industry that produced the vaccines is the same one that sparks debate about the triumphs and problems of profit-driven health care.
“The ecosystem that has contributed so much to COVID vaccines is also producing new drugs for cancers and rare diseases that come in at astronomical prices,” says Loftus.
Moderna’s situation also raises skepticism about the ethics of a government-funded vaccination campaign that is making some corporate executives billionaires. The federal government provided the company with $1.7 billion for research and testing through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. After the first six months of this year, taxpayers’ money has also generated about $8 billion in revenue for the company through supply contracts. Another $1.74 billion OK with the US government to provide 66 million booster doses was announced in late July.
Moderna chairman and one of its founders Noubar Afeyan, board member and founder Robert Langer and early investor Timothy Springer were among the top 400 the richest people in America in 2021. Their fortunes have dwindled with Moderna’s stock price, but they remain billionaires. Bancel also has a current net value over $5 billion.
“In 2020, a great source of [Moderna’s] the money came from taxpayers. They got a lot of government money, grants and supply contracts that almost eliminated financial risk to embark on a high-stakes vaccine development campaign,” says Loftus. “There has been criticism of the company because this whole process of developing a COVID vaccine, often with a lot of public support, government support, taxpayer support, has had the effect – because that they succeeded – to increase the stock market value of the company, and in turn, enriching the executives.
Loftus hopes to “leave fodder for people to have this discussion and debate” on these contentious issues.
Loftus’ recent pharmaceutical coverage for the the wall street journal includes stories about the approval of Novavax, a new mRNA-free vaccine. He also wrote about oversupply of COVID vaccines, with 30 million doses of Moderna’s greatest achievement landing in the trash.
Jerky doses “might have seemed unimaginable” in early 2021, he says. Then again, a new mRNA vaccine approved in less than a year might have seemed even more unimaginable at the start of 2020.
Loftus and The messenger tell this unlikely story.
Maggie Eastland is a junior at Notre Dame studying finance and journalism. Propelled by a few too many cups of coffee and daily stock market email newsletters, she’s also an associate editor at The Observer.