Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric

Interview with Stéphane Bancel

The Moderna CEO reflects on the incredibly fast development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Photograph of Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel.

In 2020 Distillations talked to people who have special insight into the coronavirus crisis—biomedical researchers, physicians, public health experts, and historians. In this episode, we talk to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, a biotech company that developed one of the three emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. The Moderna vaccine is unique in that it uses a new technology that has been decades in the making called messenger RNA, or mRNA.

Bancel reflects on the development timeline of the vaccine: from learning about the virus while reading the Wall Street Journal in 2019 to the moment he finally got his own shot at a Moderna facility. He talks about the promise of mRNA and what’s ahead for Moderna.

Credits

Host: Alexis Pedrick
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr 
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Researcher: Jessica Wade
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer

Transcript

Alexis Pedrick: Hello and welcome to Distillations. I’m Alexis Pedrick. Last year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we produced a series of interviews focused entirely on COVID-19 called Pandemic Perspectives. We interviewed people working at the heart of the crisis, including biomedical researchers, physicians, and public health experts.

Today we have a special Pandemic Perspectives episode for you. Our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, spoke with Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel. You’ve probably heard if this biotech startup because, well, they developed one of three emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States.

The Moderna vaccine is unique in that it uses a new technology that’s been in the making for decades. It’s called messenger RNA or mRNA and here’s how it works. Almost everything our bodies do relies on proteins. As a result, we’re constantly producing them. Now, think back to high school biology class. DNA is shaped like a double helix with two strands that look like a twisted staircase. In order to make proteins, your body makes a copy of a strand of the double helix. This copy is known as messenger RNA. Remember, this strand is kind of like computer code, with all the information your body needs to make certain types of protein. Your cells take that genetic code and make proteins based on that information. Your body has something like 20,000 instruction sets to make all kinds of proteins like insulin, for example.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are unique because they’re essentially instructions that tell your body to make the spike protein that the coronavirus is famous for. It doesn’t tell your body to make the virus, just that spike protein so that your immune system recognizes it and develops antibodies to fight off the virus if it ever comes in contact with it.

In this interview Bancel reflects on the extremely quick timeline for developing the vaccine, the promise of mRNA technology, and what people can expect from Moderna going forward.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Can we start with an introduction? Can you introduce yourself, how you would like to be known?

Stéphane Bancel: My name is Stéphane Bancel. I’m the CEO of Moderna.

Rigoberto Hernandez: So you joined Moderna in 2011 and Moderna is known for its messenger RNA technology, which, you know, at times it’s, at the time, it was very, promising, technology but it wasn’t widely known. And you, you could say that it was risky. Could you walk me through what made you join Moderna?

Stéphane Bancel: Yes. So the idea of using messenger RNA back in 2011, was a bit of a crazy idea. We all believed in the field that messenger RNA could not be a safe drug because it was believed to be unstable, as a molecule. And was believed to be highly immunogenic, so giving you flu-like symptoms when you inject that molecule into a human body.

I actually, told my wife, who is a photographer and does not understand science very well. I told her that this was a five percent chance that this was gonna work. In the sense of having the ability to make safe mRNA that would be efficacious that will make the, the medicine that you need it, in somebody’s body.

Rigoberto Hernandez: I see. So but you as a person, joining the CEO of a company, m- what was that calculus? What was, what made you decide to jump into… You had a nice job before this. What made you join a startup?

Stéphane Bancel: I-It’s a chance of changing medicine, forever. The piece that was really exciting to me, ’cause I first heard about the idea of using messenger RNA, and after a phase of denial that this was never gonna work and was crazy. The piece that actually gave me a lot of energy and got me very excited, is the notion that because mRNA is an information molecule if you could make it work once, it will work for a lot of things, a lot of medicine. And this could change medicine because you could make basically uh, people make their own medicine by sending an instruction set. A piece of mRNA is an ins- information molecule, it’s a piece of code. It just instruct a cell to make the protein you want.

In the case of a COVID-19 vaccine, in which many people are aware of, we basically, instruct your body to make the spike protein of a virus. You don’t make the virus, we don’t give you a virus. We just give you a set of code so that in your own machinery in your cells, we have a machine we, you use just to be alive and to live every day and you’ve had since you were one cell in your mom’s womb is this machinery that we have find the ability to instruct to make the protein that we design.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of us are very curious about the lead up to the, to the Moderna vaccine. And I’m hoping you can walk me through some of, the key moments in the timeline. And let’s start with the very beginning when, there’s news coming out of China in December 30th, that there’s a strange pneumonia coming out of Wuhan, China. What’s going through your head when you learn about the virus? And what is the response you had in your company?

Stéphane Bancel: So what’s going through my head is we can help. You know, before that time, Moderna had done nine different vaccines in clinical studies. And we had learned a lot. Our first one was in December 2015. So here you are in, you know, December 2019, that’s four years of testing many vaccines, learning, improving the, the, the, the technology, improving manufacturing. I think at that time, we were at our fifth or sixth manufacturing process iteration, to make it better and better.

And so, you know, I have a chance for 25 years in my career, to always have worked for companies that have done infectious disease. And as a young professional, I lived in, in Japan, in Asia. And I was really, literally, traumatized I, I think it must have been the first year in the job, where Japan was hit with a very bad food poisoning outbreak caused by a bacteria, where children were dying. And we were the only company with robotic machine to be able to do testing. And so we were already working 24/7, non-stop with our team.

And in that trauma really made me always very curious about, you know, viruses, always aware that we are always a day away from a new virus, a new bacteria, creating a lot of causing a lot of pain and, and hurt, and public health, you know, crisis. And so actually, I’m the one who actually, was reading the Wall Street Journal when I heard of that virus, who literally emailed the NIH and emailed my team back in Boston because this happened during Christmas and New Year of 2019. I was actually, back in, traveling in France with my family for the, the holidays.

And and the first thing that came to my mind, is geez, if this thing is, is real we can help because it was very clear to us that messenger RNA was the fastest technology known to us that could move quickly from a genetic sequence of a new virus. Which I knew was very easily done and, and quick and cheap, to getting a vaccine, moving to clinical studies.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah, yeah. And what makes it so different is the fact that, you know, as opposed to pre- other vaccines that, that are made with either dead virus or is very small amount of the virus, this one doesn’t require any of that. Which was, must have been very helpful, in order to fast that timeline, needed to create a vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel: Yes. I mean, the piece that got me most excited about mRNA uh, that that has been proven time and time and time, over, is that because mRNA is an information molecule, using four letters, you know, software, it’s called zero and one, when any protein in life, across species, a plant, a fish, you know, a monkey, a dog, a human, it’s the same four letters.

Stéphane Bancel: And that system, that coding system makes mRNA as a molecule, a platform. Because once you know how to make a flu vaccine, where you put the instruction set for, let’s say, one protein of a flu virus, or the Zika virus which we have done, as well, then when the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, appears on the planet and once you get posted online, the sequence, the geno-genomic information of the antivirus. You can go and literally, pick, move your mouse on the computer, the instruction for that protein spike, you copy it and then you paste it into the let’s say, the flu vaccine of Moderna, and here you go again, you have a new drug.

And that, that ability to replicate drugs so quickly was literally, science fiction, 10 years ago. And what we’ve done over the last 10 years, by investing a lot in science, is to take the word, fiction, out of science fiction. Is this ability that you have a platform that exists in the tech world.. Was revolutionary in my industry. You know, I used to work, you know, Eli Lilly, which is an amazing company. If you got the big pharma company, what technology do they have, if I simplify their small molecule technology, which is old small molecule entities which is the old traditional pharma from, you know, more than 100 years ago. And amazing medicines have been made like, Lipitor and Prozac over the years.

And then since the 70s and 80s, you had the recombinant technology, what has been called the biotech technology. Which is basically, instructing, you know, initially E. Coli cells, bacteria cells, to make a human protein by instructing the human instruction of a protein. The first one was, you know, human insulin and human growth hormone, that Genentech did way back then. [laughs] And you will make that in the big reactor. We have a lot of bacteria cells and then you will purify. You will extract the protein of interest, the human protein. And then you put it in a vial and that will make a biotech product.

And so if you think about those two technologies I’ve just described, the small molecule on the one end and large molecule on biotech products those products, every product is different. The manufacturing process the, the, the chemistry route, like, the one you did in high school, you know, how you get to a compound. All those things are different for every compound. And so every time you invent a new drug in the lab, you need a to figure out how do you make it.

Stéphane Bancel: And then, when you have a drug in the lab that you think is interesting and safe, you know, that you can take it to the clinic, then you need a [nanoengineer 00:11:58], this time, to figure out how to make high quantity of that drug in FDA guidelines manufacturing processes, to ensure the safety and the robustness of a process, you have purity of a product and so on.

But every time it’s different. So sometimes it will take you a long time because it’s not easy. Well, the piece that’s really, though, got my head spinning when I heard about mRNA medicine as a concept, back in 2011, was this notion that if you could figure out how to do it once, it made no scientific sense, that you will be done.

Stéphane Bancel: And so what was very interesting, as we build a company and a lot of things we do at Moderna you know, people sometime, you know, criticize or frown upon, e-even in the industry and the media, is because we always say, this could not be a one drug company. It will be zero because we would run out of money and we’ll go bankrupt before we get the first product approved. Or it will be dozens and dozens and dozens of drugs coming out of this technology. Because again, mRNA is an information molecule because the raw material that we use, is genetic information. Either from, your DNA, from humans or from sequence of a virus, is that we made no scientific sense, it will be a one drug company. It will be zero or a lot.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. So is, going back to the, the fact that all you need is like, the genetic sequence of the virus to make the, the vaccine, or to make the compound. So when that sequence was posted in January 10 what was the atmosphere at Moderna? Because you go from December 30th to January 10, that’s like, a few, like, just like, a couple of weeks and you already have what you need.

Stéphane Bancel: Correct. What we are waiting between me, reading about this virus in the Wall Street Journal and contacting the NIH and contacting my team in Boston, and was the sequence. Was, tell us the genomic information of this virus because until you telling me that, I can do nothing.

Stéphane Bancel: But what is very interesting compared to traditional technology, I don’t need the virus.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Right.

Stéphane Bancel:  But it’s really amazing for me to tell you, how much of a step forward in science, this whole mRNA technology is, is we designed these, vaccine in 48 hours on the computer. We never had access to a virus, physically. And that’s what the, basically, the vaccine that has been authorized by the FDA and has been, you know given to, you know, 100 plus million people.

And that’s for me, the, the, the, the incredible science fiction-like aspect of it. Which is, if you go back, you know, we’re in a time machine and you go, you know, 10 years ago, and you tell a scientist in pharmaceutical companies, in the future, you’ll be able to design a virus from only it’s genetic information and nothing else. Most people in the industry would have been laughing.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah.

Stéphane Bancel: Like, what are you talking about?

Rigoberto Hernandez: A-and then, after the January 10 sequences, it just takes 42 days for you to have, be able to send something to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Maryland. It, do I have that timeline, right?

Stéphane Bancel: Yeah.

Rigoberto Hernandez: And what was that moment like, to just 42 days after the sequence? So we have December 30th, then January 10 and 42 days later, you already, sending something to Bethesda, Maryland.

Stéphane Bancel: Correct. So basically, what we did is, when we designed the, the, the vaccine and when my scientist clicked on there, on our website that looks a little, bit like, the Amazon website. Two things happened at the same time. One is, it went to robots that make non-clinical material that you can’t test it anymore. So that happened very quick, in a week or so. And then, animal work start at the NIH, where we send them samples and in our lab in Cambridge.

And in part, at the same time, we took the rigorous business risk, it was only risk with money. We took the business risk because we knew every day, material, when you have a new virus, time is not your friend. To start running, making clinical grade product. Because again, we believed the vaccine that the team that designed on the computer, had a very, very high chance of working because we’ve done many vaccines before. mRNA is an information molecules and other things we talked about.

And so we took the business risk to make the mRNA. We say, okay. If we have confirmation in the animal, it’s looking good. Well, we’ll have uh, a vaccine ready to start a clinical trial. And indeed, in 42 days, we shipped it to the NIH, where Dr. Fauci and his team took it into a phase one.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. You know, there’s like, a now, somewhat, famous press conference in which the, President Trump, gathers heads of other pharmaceutical companies. And they talk about a possible timeline and they speak about years, other speak about 18 months. But then you say that, well, actually, I already sent something out to Fauci. I already sent something out to excuse me, to Bethesda, Maryland.

Stéphane Bancel: What my team actually said, to be very proud to be working with the US government. And to have already sent in only 42 days from the sequence of a virus, our vaccine to Dr. Fauci’s team at the NIH. We’re now, waiting for the vaccine to be green light from the FDA. The product is at the NIH. And then it will be a few months to get the human data, that will allow us to pick a therapeutic dose, to start the phase two, right away.

Donald Trump: So you talked about it over the next months, you’d think that you would have a vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel: Correct. With phase two.

Donald Trump: Okay, yeah. And would have a vaccine, you’ll have vaccine to go into testing..

Stéphane Bancel: To phase two, yes.

Donald Trump: And how long would that take?

Stéphane Bancel: The phase two would take few months before can go into phase three.

Donald Trump: All right. So we’re talking within, about a year.

Donald Trump: That’s amazing.

Rigoberto Hernandez: What made you speak up? What made you wanna say, something about that moment?

Stéphane Bancel: I mean, if you think first, you know, I was invited by the President of the United States to the White House with my colleagues and the key government officials, like, the head of FDA, the head of CDC Dr. Fauci, were the ones, not yet, as everybody knows. And so first, I was there to give an update to the US government of what we had done and what we are planning to do. And so it was my responsibility to inform the President and his advisers of the situation and the fact.

And even though, we are a science based organization and data are our friends. And so I basically, explained what we have done to date. And I explained in my best judgment, what I believed could happen and in what type of time frame, which was indeed the most, you know.

Rigoberto Hernandez: I think the ques- the big question here is that like, the attention is really that like, you have an administration that wants to have a vaccine fast for political reasons but you’re doing science and business. Did you feel the tension of the political pressures with like, the, the pressures or a raging pandemic that you have a vaccine for?

Stéphane Bancel: So it’s interesting, every day since last year starting to chase this virus, we’ve had a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves, because we knew every day mattered. And people were gonna die, people are gonna get hospitalized, you know, kids will be out of school and have, you know, learning inequalities. People will lose their jobs. So that has been the tension, the pressure, we felt because we have an understanding in infectious disease.

But I can tell you, last year, not once we got pressured to go faster or to cut corners. We got a lot of help. That’s one of the thing I really want to again, thank the US government, you know. We got funding, we got a lot of funding, you know. Moderna has got more than $1 billion, so we could take a lot business risk because that’s the only way we could save time. You cannot compromise on quality because quality, in a drug development, is a no go. It’s a no go, ethically. And it’s a no go, from a regulatory standpoint. As you know, we have very strong regulatory agency, we have in the US. Made of scientists and, and clinician, that are extremely capable, most probably one of the best, if not, the best in the world.

And, and cutting time by cutting corners, never even crossed our minds. Because again, we are in the business of trying to help people, not trying to hurt people. But what the US government did, by giving us all those resources, was to be able to do things in parallel of things at risk, at business risk, to save time.

The, the best example I’ve used, is in a typical drug development, you do your phase one. You wait for your data and then, you go see the regulator to ask, can I go to phase two? He may give you a okay. Then, you start making the phase two drug. Because as most drugs fail in phase one, you’re not gonna spend the money on making the phase two drug, if you’re never gonna use it, whether we, whether we do, last year. Because we were sponsored by the US government and quality was not c- not negotiable but everything we can get in time was appreciated and, and meaningful.

We started making the phase two material, as the first people were getting injected in the phase one. Meaning, you have a phase one that failed because of safety reason or if lack of making protein and antibodies. We would never have gone into phase two, when that phase two material that we made for several million dollars, would have been going to the garbage.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah.

Stéphane Bancel: That wasn’t a risk that the government was willing to take. And we were willing to execute on it because we thought on the risk return standpoint, for the American people and for the world, it was the best thing to do. The only downside, if we were wrong, and thankfully we were right on the quality of the vaccine, if we were wrong, was money going down the drain but not helping anybody.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And so when you start doing trials what was that feeling like, when some of, the first people kind of stepped up and said, I’ll take the risk to be tested. Y-you’re kind of almost at the, y-you’re at the timeline that takes 10 years. And now, suddenly, you, within, you’re within six to seven months.

Stéphane Bancel: Yes. So I think we’re all very focused on the goal which is to get a safe effec-effective vaccine to the finish line. We were not worried about safety. It’s our platform, as we discussed. So it’s not our first vaccine uh, this was our 10th vaccine in human. And we had refined the technology, every time, with improvements. So I never worries about the tech- the, the safety. And I didn’t worry too much about the ability to make neutralizing antibody. Because I, again, this is a platform, we’ve done it many times before. Every time, we did it correctly, it worked.

And so I never worried about it. I had, of course, moments of doubts, because you know, when you’re a day or two, and you’re working for data, you start going in, in your head, in a bad place. You know, say, geez. If this doesn’t work, if we made a mistake here. If even the, the assay, the test to, to test blood is wrong, we’re gonna think the vaccine doesn’t work but the vaccine works, the test will be wrong.

So there’s a lot of things you go through your checklist are all working, that could go wrong. Also, somebody making a mistake and they give a placebo when they think they give the drug to a person. So you are always at uh, a lot of stress in the last days before the data comes. It was true for phase one. The phase two, which was really about doing more people, exposed to the vaccine, I was not worried at all because again, we’ve done many studies.

With the phase three I would say, well, the, the five days, I think it was, between the team telling us, we have all the data. We have enough patients to start counting cases and we need to educate every case with the doctors and in the independent safety board, to understand the efficacy of the vaccine. Those five days, I didn’t sleep super well.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah.

Stéphane Bancel: I was super nervous. And for any illogical reason, it was just purely, emotional.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah.

Stéphane Bancel: Because I knew what as at stake for, for the world, for the US, for our chance to help a lot of people. And as you can imagine, like all my teammates we, we wanted so bad, the result to be positive so that we could be, you know, know, sliding to to an FDA authorization, so that we can get the vaccine out of the door and start to vaccinate people. Because if you recall, this was happening in the fall, when cases were going up, as what’s expected because it’s a respiratory virus. So winter, as people spend more time indoors, we’re unfortunately, seeing in the South, right now, as they go into their winter. It’s always dreadful for respiratory virus that is new so most people are not immunized to it, have their for natural infection of every year or for vaccination.

And so there’s just a lot of angst that we wanted to bad the result to be good so that we could help a lot of people.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And in fact, you got good results. The that these, kind of vaccines are measured by their efficacy rate. And Moderna came back with a 95% efficacy rate. And this is a really good number, for context for people. This is com- the flu vaccine can be 50% or 30%. What was it like to receive a 95% efficacy rate?

Stéphane Bancel: It was, it was really amazing. I mean, I heard about it on the Sunday afternoon. Dr. Fauci was the one that I called, when I was told the result. Because I said, this is not my team who told me the result, it’s an independent safety board uh, that had stuff from NIH and, and other clinicians on it. And so Dr. Fauci was on the call too, where he was also, for the first time, hearing it. And so we are pretty pretty ecstatic about the data.

And I was at home at that time ’cause it was a Sunday. And I remember, you know, going out and calling my wife. She knew the data was gonna come anytime. And basically, you know, started crying. Because I was so happy and so relieved that we were gonna be able to help all of the people.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And so when you get that efficacy rate, the move towards emergency authorization is, is also swift. And then, suddenly, you are able to now, bring it to millions of Americans. Which I think, at this, as I checked it was like, 40 million people have received the Moderna shots.

Stéphane Bancel:  I think m- more, now. I think it is actually, if you look at it, there are 107 million dose in the US, on the CDC website, today.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Oh, wow.

Stéphane Bancel: That have been injected. And 43 million American that have been fully vaccinated with the two dose.

Rigoberto Hernandez: We talked about earlier, how the US government kind of underwrote the clouts associated with, with the creation of this vaccine. And I was reading that, they’re buying it, they’re pledged to buy 100 million doses at a $25 per dose cost, which gives Moderna a profit. I don’t think you’re gonna find people who are upset about what Moderna’s doing becuae it clearly, is saving millions of lives. But I wanna know, how you would address that, that the, the profit angle of, of this enterprise?

Stéphane Bancel:  So, so first thing is, just to correct things, we’re selling it to the US government that they’re on $16.50 per dose.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Okay.

Stéphane Bancel: And we, we give the US government a discount versus other countries because of the help that we got. So we’re basically, discounted the billion dollar that we got in help, to develop the vaccine. Because we’re very, very, sensitive and thankful and respectful of taxpayer dollar that we got. And so we, we did, did that for them versus, whether let’s say, Europe or other countries have been paying, for the very same vaccine, which we thought was fair.

In thought of making a profit, as we’re selling the product at, at no profit. It goes back to what happened over the last 10 years. In over the last 10 years, we raised, I think, close to $5 billion that we invested to get the technology to this place. And so as we thought about, you know, the pricing of a vaccine, we spent a lot of time, as you can imagine, with the world thinking about it. And it went from, should we charge no profit for the product? Should we charge what should be a fair market price?

And one example of what could have been a fair market price, is if you look at analysis that have been done by very prestigious, very serious, you know, academic group that look at the, the value of drugs. There’s a Harvard group that has done analysis at the Harvard Public Health, saying that the COVID vaccine at around 95% efficacy, which is our efficacy, should be worth for $100 to $200 per dose because of just of the direct savings of preventing direct hospitalization costs.

And you can do those maths in those type of groups that, for a living. So we, we, we, we could have done that type of price. And we say, no. Look, it’s not responsible, even the incredible numbers of dose, you need to get out. And so we try to find a price that was not at no profit. That was not at fair value for a product but was massively discounted to fair value. Again, $100 to $20, compared to $16.50. And that’s a bit, how we came to a conclusion.

And it was we think about the ecosystem here. You know, there’s a lot of investors, you know, VCs, early stage, growth investors, who literally put billions of dollars, as I’ve described, to make this technology work. And we thought it was not a good sign to the industry for future innovation and other companies. We clearly, becoming profitable, we’re not needing more funding from investors. But a lot of companies will need to. And we thought about it, when we brought it, we were like, geez, if you know, we don’t make any profit on the product, how are we actually, gonna help industry moving forward. Not us, because we don’t need the money again, any more, new funding money.

But then, we’re gonna help the industry because some investors are gonna, you know, think about it twice. Say, geez, should I invest in that technology? Because you know, if they get a product that at that time, is important for public health, they will make no profit. And I will never make a return on my capital. And that’s how we kind of, slowly thread the needle. It was not an easy discussion. We did not decide in five minutes or in one meeting. We had many discussions about it, to try to find the right path forward. And I think, overall we did uh, a good job to find a part that is not maximizing value, not at cost but something that is close to cost but with a bit of profit so that it would send the right signals.

And help us invest in more product, no. That money, we’re not gonna turn around and give a dividend to investors, no. We’re gonna turn around and use that money to do more. One example, we announced a week ago, is that because of the other vaccines that have not succeeded, other vaccines that are at safety concerns, that they’re on the market today, that the world needs more mRNA vaccine. We’re getting very clear signal from governments around the world. And so 10 days ago, we announced that we are investing to go from one billion to three billion of manufacturing supply, next year.

And that is, with the investments of billions of dollars into buying more machines, having more people, buying more raw material, getting more clean sweeps from partners. And that is basically, the profit that we’re making this year on the vaccine. That’s why we’re right away, turning around in investing to make more vaccine, to do more good for the world. And that’s a good example of how we want to use the profit. It is not to pay dividends, it is to, to do more medicine. Either more COVID vaccines, or more vaccine or more medicine using mRNA to help other people and to create, if you want, an approach parallel to maximize on impact.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. You know, it, it’s so interesting that when I think about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s like usually, making pills that people have to take for life, and that’s how you make a p-profit. But it’s interesting that suddenly, like a vac- they have, they’ve, they don’t like vaccines, investors, because you only take it once and that’s it. So it’s interesting that, and it’s, and, and because of a vaccine that Moderna has had so much success. It’s kind of, I don’t know if ironic is the right word, but it’s, it’s a little funny twist of faith, that M-Moderna is a vaccine… It is a vaccine company? Can I say that or, or…

Stéphane Bancel: No, it’s an mRNA company, it’s actually…

Rigoberto Hernandez: I said, platform, M-mRNA platform company, got it.

Stéphane Bancel: Yeah. It’s actually, the best mRNA company, in term of its breath and so on. And it’s all this technology, we developed over time. We’re not a vaccine company and we’re not a COVID-19 vaccine company. We just happened to have one of the best COVID vaccine in the world.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah, right. Did you get it? When did you get it?

Stéphane Bancel: Yeah.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Can you walk, can you take me through your, you getting it yourself?

Stéphane Bancel: Yeah. So I got vaccinated on January the third, it was a Sunday. We had decided, we brought after many discussions, that we needed to vaccinate the employees very quickly. Because in the fall, as the country was going full lot of infection, we’re getting employees that were testing positive, not from the factory, where everybody was masked, a lot of cleaning and social distancing. But mostly, on the weekends, either family contamination or friends. That’s typically, being reported by the CDC.

And so the big challenge was giving us, was that we, when somebody is down because he or she is sick, and has to be home in quarantine, first, because we have a quarantine app on everybody’s phone, where we quarantine everybody that have been potentially contaminated to reduce the spread, as we should do. But then, think about it all the operators, we’re taking out of the shop for. And those were the very men and women making the vaccines. And so I remember, one day, going to the [inaudible 00:34:30], as soon as the vaccines are for us, we need to vaccinate everybody in the company. Because we cannot take the risk that there are, there are thousand-plus people that have to make the vaccine for the planet makes less doses to help other people, because they are sick.

And so I got my vaccine on the, the campus of a factory. We basically, had a team of nurse from a local hospital, that we are contracting and, and paying, coming to, to vaccinate the team. I got my dose. It was an extraordinary feeling. You can imagine, working 10 years on the science and working non-stop for a year. And I never thought that I will get a Moderna product injected in my body. [laughing] And of course, given the pandemic, actually, I got the first Moderna product ever, authorized by the FDA injected in my body.

And it was, you know, cool for the first 48 hours to think about the science, what was happening in my body. Where my body was turning to a little factory and making, you know, for 48 hours the spike protein and my immune system seeing it and getting super upset with it and making an antibody, that would protect me, in case, I get it later.

Rigoberto Hernandez: There’s been a lot made about the fact that there’s two doses and that because of, of that, some people are skipping it, skipping the second dose. I know that you talked about potentially, creating as a one dose shot, did I have that right? What, where is that in your priority list? Why is it important to do that?

Stéphane Bancel: We believe, the two dose is really important to provide you more antibodies, what has been shown and published in journal, that the second dose give you much more antibody. So it gives you more concentration in your blood to protect you. And then, what also, we believe it does, is to give you more duration of protection. So we are not working on a single dose vaccine. What we’re working on is on a single dose boost.

Rigoberto Hernandez: I see.

Stéphane Bancel: We believe that the vaccination will not last all your life. We believe, actually, it might be a year or two, depending on your age and those new variants. Because if you get the variant that is very different from the vaccine that you got, initially that will impact its, and reduce its efficacy. But we believe that a one dose boost will be enough because given you’ve already been vaccinated, is basically, reteaching your immune system or, or, or kind of literally, boosting your immune system to do more. But the, the, the initial vaccination, we are not working and never really would have been on the signal dose vaccination. We believe that two of those are really important.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And speaking of vaccines, there’s like two other companies that have emergency use authorization. The Pfizer-BioNTech uh, also Johnson & Johnson. But the Pfizer one is the one that is also a messenger RNA. And I think that a lot of us are seeing, oh, well, what’s the difference? What is the difference between Moderna and Pfizer? Uh, There are some differences. Can you tell us what that they might be and, and how should we look at, at the different kinds of options that are available to people?

Stéphane Bancel: Yeah. So let’s start with, with some obvious differences to the, the, the final consumer because there are some differences to the pharmacist and to a doctor. But to a consumer, I would say, the two products use, indeed, a similar technology. But for example, the chemistry we use is different, in the case of a Moderna vaccine, you get 100 microgram of mRNA. In the case of Pfizer vaccine, you get 30 microgram. So you get more. We believe it will be helpful over time to get more. We could give more because the product was well tolerated from a safety standpoint.

And we believe, especially, for people at higher risk, people with, you know, comorbidity, people that are elderly, these over time should help. We don’t have the data yet because as you know, for all the vaccines, we look at efficacy rate after dosing, where you get a lot of antibodies anyway. Some of, the difference, is, are, saw around the, the pharmacist because you know, case. You have a product is total minus 20, in the case, 20 celsius. In the case of Pfizer, it’s minus 70 celsius. We know product instead, being a week at fridge temperature can be enough at fridge temperature, which is easier to handle.

When you get the product, you do not need for Moderna to dilute it. In the case of a Pfizer vaccine, you need to dilute it so it’s much more work and more complicated to maneuver and more costly to maneuver, for a Pfizer vaccine. But the underlying technology is similar. I think of a time, what we’re gonna be doing for Moderna is going for variants booster. And we have already been shown that we can do several mRNA molecule in the same vial to boost against multiple variants, which is what we think is gonna be giving the best vaccine down the road. And to this day Pfizer has not been able to show in the clinic that they can put several mRNA. I’m sure, one day they will. But you might as well, help us in the future, to bring to the market, the booster that gives you more protection than if you have only one mRNA molecule into it.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Putting the Moderna COVID vaccine in historical context, how do you hope that people will remember this breakthrough in science?

Stéphane Bancel: I think they will see it as the beginning of a new era of medicine. Because I described earlier, for over the last 100 plus years, pharmaceutical drugs were mostly pills made of small chemical products with a lot of side effects. Where most drugs, fail in clinical trial, that is what we will remember. For over the last 50 years, since you know, Genentech, and in general, those amazing companies are making biotech products. We had a new class of medicine. We have much less side effect. Going after disease that we could not fully address before and that has transformed the life of millions of people.

And I think the next chapter in the history of medicine, as we look back, you know, in 10, 20 years, that big pivot moment with this new class of medicine, mRNA, will be the, the pandemic. Because you know our plans was to launch our first product a few years from now, not in, in December 2019 uh, 2020. And, and, and because so many people got the, the product of either Pfizer or Moderna, which are all relying on the same co-technology, I think it will be the pivot point in history, in medicine, which is, there will be a time after, you know, COVID and a time before COVID, in term of medicines.

You know, like, Moderna, we have right now, 24 medicines with mRNA, in development. I’m not even talking about the labs. We have many more in the labs. But if you look at what we are doing, we are, of course, we have so many more vaccines that are addressing viruses that are, that have no vaccine on the market, today. So viruses that hurt humans, for which there is no hope or no answer today. So that’s one thing we are doing.

We are studying five drugs in cancer to do new things. It’s not to do a copy drug of what’s done by older technology but a very new approach to cancer. Including, a product that is a personalized cancer medicine, where we make a medicine just for you, based on the genetic information of your cancer cell. So very, very tailored. Uh, We have a disease sorry, medicines against cardiac disease. Like, there’s a medicine that we inject in people’s heart after a heart attack and that’s happening in the clinic, right now. Where people who had a heart attack, get our, our drug to wield new blood vessel in their body, like, regenerative medicine.

 So that you can bring back ox-oxygen and nutrient to where, to the heart tissue that has been damaged for being infarct. We very soon, will be in the clinic, with rare genetic disease and also, we have auto-immune disease.

So if you think about it, over time, this is basically, a new class of medicine that has seen it’s infancy through the pandemic.

Rigoberto Hernandez: We talked about the fact that Moderna never had a product to market. And for the first product to be a COVID vaccine to market, that’s a pretty huge accomplishment. And I’m wondering if you feel some sort of, vindication. Or do you feel like, you’ve been proven right, for your belief in mRNA?

Stéphane Bancel: So that has never been a goal of ours. You know, we are a very mission centric team. I, I joined this company when it was one scientist and a crazy idea, you know, with five percent chance of working, because this could change medicine forever. It was not to prove people that I was right or this has never been driving me. What gives me energy, is well, people, you know. And that’s, that’s what I am so happy about and proud of. Even though, I’m the type of person who thinks mostly, forward bot backward. So you know, we don’t spend days, you know, looking at the, oh, today, there’s, you know, a million more people were vaccined.

Even though, this is great and this is the proof, we look forward. Okay, how do we get the adolescent indication? How do we get the pediatric indication? How do we get the variant boost vaccine for the South Africa variant? How do we get a flu vaccine in the clinic? So we are always looking forward to do more. Which I know, sometimes it’s, it is not great. Because sometimes, you need to spend time, you know, celebrating the, the milestones, celebrating the achievements.

But most probably because just of my, my, my personality I tend to look forward which has its plus and minuses. And so I’m always trying to think, okay, what’s the next thing we can do so we can help more people.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Thank you so much, Stephane uh, for your time. I really do appreciate it.

Stéphane Bancel: Well, you’re welcome. You know, we, we got into this business, you know, 10 years ago to make medicines to help people. We of course, never thought, we’ll have such an opportunity to help so many, so fast. We are very humbled by, by the opportunity we were given. And I’m very thankful to the team for their relentless work, and not only the last 10 years, to get us ready for this moment, but for what people have done the last 12 months. The, the personal sacrifice that the team have done, have been just incredible.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Thank you so much, Stephane.

Stéphane Bancel: Right, thank you so much. Stay safe.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Appreciate it, bye.

Stéphane Bancel: Thank you, bye.

Rigoberto Hernandez: You too, bye.

Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of Pandemic Perspectives. As always, you can find all of our episodes, plus transcripts and show notes at distillations.org. And you can find tons educational resources on our website at sciencehistory.org/learn. The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow. For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Listen to more episodes

Collage of archival and drawn images related to dye making and drug manufacturing
DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

Dyes, Drugs, and Psychosis

The first antipsychotic was discovered through a series of mistakes, starting with—of all things—a breakthrough dye.

Headshot of woman
DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

Pink: An Interview with Dominique Grisard

In this bonus episode, the gender studies professor discusses the popular color and its history, including ties to prison experiments.

Collage with multiple color components, man in uniform, and spectrochrome
DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

Can Color Heal Us?

For centuries people have been fascinated by the potential healing powers of color, but is there any truth to it?

    Republish

    Copy the above HTML to republish this content. We have formatted the material to follow our guidelines, which include our credit requirements. Please review our full list of guidelines for more information. By republishing this content, you agree to our republication requirements.