Moderna’s groundbreaking coronavirus vaccine was designed in just 2 days

Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine candidate was found to be 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials, the company announced last week.

The vaccine’s development process was unprecedentedly fast — only the team of Pfizer and BioNTech beat the biotech newcomer in announcing results from a late-stage clinical trial.

The experimental vaccine was also far more effective than expected: The Food and Drug Administration had said it would likely approve a vaccine that showed at least 50% efficacy, and Dr. Anthony Fauci had said he hoped for 70%. (AstraZeneca found its coronavirus vaccine candidate to be 70% effective on average, while Pfizer-BioNTech reported their shot is 95% effective.) 

But perhaps more remarkable is that Moderna designed its vaccine in just two days in January, before some people had even heard of the coronavirus.

That wouldn’t have been possible without the technology Moderna has bet on since its founding: messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines.

Messenger RNA is genetic material that tells cells how to make proteins. So Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine candidate works by injecting a small piece of mRNA from the coronavirus that codes for the virus’ spike protein. This protein helps the coronavirus attach to and invade cells, and it’s what antibodies target and neutralize. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine spurs the body to produce the spike protein internally. That, in turn, triggers an immune response.

Pfizer’s candidate, which the company says is 95% effective, is also mRNA-based.

how mRNA vaccines work infographic

An infographic showing how mRNA vaccines are developed.
Shayanne Gal/Insider

Utilizing mRNA vaccine technology meant Pfizer and Moderna only needed the coronavirus’ genetic sequence to make a vaccine — no live virus had to be cultured and grown in labs. That’s why they were able to progress in record time. In contrast, for most traditional vaccine platforms, the process can take years.

“What you could probably do is make this a whole new way of making drugs, vaccines, almost anything,” Bob Langer, one of Moderna’s founders, previously told Business Insider.

Read more: How the sprint for a coronavirus vaccine transformed Moderna into a $39 billion powerhouse that’s poised to reshape biotech

vaccine 02

Yuqing Liu/Business Insider

The FDA has never approved an mRNA-based vaccine or treatment before, so to many, Moderna’s bet looked risky. But it appears to be set to pay off. Moderna will soon ask the FDA to authorize its coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, and Pfizer has already submitted its application.

If the FDA gives the green light to the shots, mRNA vaccines are poised to set a new industry standard.  

How Moderna got ahead of the coronavirus

On January 6, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel emailed Barney Graham, a vaccine researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Bancel was troubled by a mysterious virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. He then talked with Graham about developing a vaccine for the virus.

Moderna had been working with the NIH since 2017 on vaccines, and had not yet gotten a vaccine approved. Graham agreed.

On January 11, researchers from China published the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus. Two days later, Moderna’s team and NIH scientists had finalized the targeted genetic sequence it would use in its vaccine.

Bancel downplayed the accomplishment in an interview with the New York Times.

“This is not a complicated virus,” he said. 

By February 24, Moderna had shipped out its first vaccine batches to NIH scientists in Bethesda, Maryland. Researchers administered the first dose on March 16 in Seattle, Washington. That launched the first clinical trial of any coronavirus vaccine.

Moderna coronavirus vaccine trial participant

Nurse Kath Olmstead gives volunteer Melissa Harting an injection as part of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial, July 27, 2020.
Hans Pennink/AP

Moderna’s speed may lead some to wonder whether the company sacrificed thoroughness. But that’s not the case, according to Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association.

“We’re not skipping steps — we actually have better technology,” Rizzo told Business Insider. “Why did it take two weeks to cross the Atlantic back in the 1800s? Well, we had to go on a boat. Whereas now, you can get across the ocean in several hours.”

The pros and cons of mRNA vaccines

For decades, vaccines contained a dead or weakened version of the virus itself. Then early advances in genetics allowed vaccines to use proteins made by the virus instead. That method was first used in the 1980s to develop a vaccine for hepatitis B.

Companies like Novavax are relying on the protein-based model to create their coronavirus vaccine candidates. But Moderna’s business has revolved around mRNA since it started in 2010.

coronavirus molecules

An illustration of a coronavirus particle. The red, objects are the spike proteins.

RNA vaccines offer a big advantage: speed. Since they’re produced in test tubes rather than cultivated using cells, they’re quicker to produce. 

But the vaccines have drawbacks. For one, they require that people get two injections. Pfizer is delivering its two shots three weeks apart, while Moderna’s trial participants received two shots four weeks apart. 

The vaccines are also difficult to deliver and store. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be shipped at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, which requires dry ice and special freezers. Moderna’s requires a temperature of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a bit colder than the average freezer.

Still, Moderna’s market value has risen by over 400% since January, to more than $40 billion.

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