The Future Looks Bright for mRNA-based Vaccines

bright future glimmer of hope

It isn’t often that a contestant pulls ahead in a major contest and their competitor wins too, but Moderna – along with other COVID-19 vaccine contenders – will take it. Moderna’s shares went up 9% Monday with the announcement that Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine had surpassed all expectations with a 90% efficacy rate in interim analysis. 

Of the 47 contestants in the race to vanquish COVID-19, the primary beneficiaries of Pfizer’s initial Phase III results were companies with products based on messenger-RNA (mRNA) technology – the platform behind the breakout vaccine.

Moderna, Inc. is the most well-known proponent of mRNA. The company's vaccine, like Pfizer’s, uses pieces of messenger RNA (mRNA) to stimulate cells to produce a protective antibody response. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel has said that the company could see initial results by the end of November and expects to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in December. 

While Pfizer and BioNTech are currently stealing the spotlight, Moderna’s vaccine has a logistical upside. Drugs developed with mRNA are tricky when it comes to storage. While Pfizer’s vaccine necessitates storage requirements of around -100 degrees Fahrenheit, Moderna plans to ship their vaccines at -20 degrees Fahrenheit, potentially easing logistical and cost requirements and allowing it to serve a greater purpose globally. This would also lessen the mad scramble for superior refrigeration in the U.S.  

BioNTech, the German biotech which came to Pfizer for help in developing the now front-runner, stands to be the biggest beneficiary of all. This is due to the fact that 8 of its 12 products in development, which include therapies for infectious diseases and cancers, are based on the platform. If final results of its vaccine echo the initial ones, it would be a resounding affirmation of the technology, which has never before been used in a commercially approved drug. BioNTech’s stock was up 14% by 1:30 pm ET on Monday. 

“The first interim analysis of our global Phase III study provides evidence that a vaccine may effectively prevent COVID-19. This is a victory for innovation, science and a global collaborative effort. When we embarked on this journey 10 months ago this is what we aspired to achieve,” said Professor Uğur Şahin, BioNTech co-founder and CEO, in a statement Monday.

Dr. Kathrin Jansen, senior vice president and head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, was skeptical about the mRNA approach to vaccine development when she first met with Şahin in 2017.  After the two companies agreed to develop an influenza vaccine in August, 2018, Jansen had this to say:

“As with any new technology, mRNA needed to be proven scientifically and, at that time, there was little evidence that RNA technologies could be effective in preventing infectious disease. What intrigued me with the technology was the potential to develop a better flu vaccine for which RNA offered multiple potential advantages to current approaches.”

If Pfizer and BioNTech’s early results bear out and are followed this month with equally optimistic results from Moderna, it could not come at a better time as yesterday, the U.S. reached the unenviable milestone of 10 million total COVID-19 cases.

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