As safety concerns over COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – Janssen have led to disruptions in the inoculation efforts of numerous countries that rely on such injections, companies like Moderna are attempting to fill the resulting gaps.
The Massachusetts-based biotech company announced on April 29 that it is investing billions to increase manufacturing facilities in Switzerland, Spain and the United States, building enough capacity to produce up to 3 billion doses of its mRNA-based vaccine up to to 2022. differs from that of AstraZeneca and J&J, which both use an adenovirus to deliver COVID-19 virus genes to the immune system and which have both been associated with serious and life-threatening blood clots, albeit very rare.
Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, says that some of the richest and most developed countries are eager to increase their orders for mRNA vaccines (which include both Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech shot). “In the last month or so, in the discussions we have had with heads of state, prime ministers, country presidents and health ministers, when governments look to effectiveness, safety, production scalability and speed to the next generation of vaccines, what we’re hearing loud and clear is that mRNA is best for the problem at hand, ”says Bancel. “And governments around the world want more and more mRNA products.”
To meet that need, and the needs of facilities in countries with fewer resources that don’t have the freezing capabilities to store the company’s vaccine currently, Bancel says its scientists are studying a new version of the Moderna vaccine that it won’t need. to be frozen, and instead should simply be stored in refrigerated conditions for up to three months. At present, it can only be stored at those temperatures for a month after the doses have been thawed from their frozen storage temperature of around -20 ° C (14 ° F), which requires special equipment that is not widely available. If studies show that the new vaccine could be stable and effective at refrigerated temperatures, that could increase the number of places that could vaccinate with Moderna injection.
“We’ve played with a couple of key technology decisions and it’s really a very different product,” says Bancel of the refrigerated version, which the company has just started testing on people. This means that efficacy data will not be available until late summer at the earliest; the company is working with the FDA to understand what the authorization process for that vaccine would be like.
Meanwhile, the company is also studying three new versions of its COVID-19 vaccine to address viral mutations. One is specifically designed to protect against a more infectious variant of the virus, B.1.351, first identified in South Africa. The current Moderna vaccine has been shown in studies to offer sufficient protection against this variant, but that protection is slightly lower than that provided against the original viral strain, and Moderna researchers are testing whether the new shot activates a stronger immune response against variant B.1.351. Animal studies are promising and human studies have only just begun, so by early autumn, Bancel says, “we expect the data to [for the new vaccine] in humans to be as strong as we saw last year with the current vaccine. ”
Moderna’s team is also testing whether a third shot of its currently licensed vaccine – at a lower dose than the first and second shots – could be effective as a booster, to increase protection against variant strains. Finally, the company is also testing a vaccine that combines the original vaccine with the new one against the South African variant.
Looking ahead, some public health experts believe that controlling COVID-19 may require regular vaccinations, similar to flu shots, to maintain immune protection. Anticipating this, Moderna scientists are also working on a combined injection of influenza and COVID-19 that would protect people from both respiratory diseases.