Moderna is committed to keep chasing new COVID variants: CEO

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss efficacy of the Moderna vaccine and the development of vaccine boosts.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. Positive news from Moderna, showing its COVID vaccine protects at least up to six months with more than 90% protection, making it the second vaccine to confirm such protection. But Moderna is already looking beyond that, with clinical trials for flu vaccines set to begin this year.

Joining us now to discuss that and more is CEO Stephane Bancel. Welcome back, Stephane. Thanks for joining us today.

STEPHANE BANCEL: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

- Good morning. So let's start off with that positive news about the protection. We kind of anticipated it based on the news out of Pfizer and BioNTech. So now that you see that six months protection, do you think that that variant-specific booster you're working on is still going to be needed, or are we going to just look at a regular booster.

STEPHANE BANCEL: So it's a bit too early to tell exactly what booster is going to be needed, but a booster is going to be needed. If you look at the efficacy, it's still 90% plus, which is, of course, wonderful. But you have a mixed bag, I would say, between people that are young and healthy and maybe 100% efficacy and people that are older with one or several co-morbidity factors.

And then to your point is the variants. We do worry about the variants. As you know, the virus is evolving away from the original strain and so from the original vaccines. And we are worried especially about the one first identified in South Africa or in Brazil.

And so we want just be ready. We believe especially people at high risk should get a boost in the fall, and we want to make sure we have the best possible boost. We are currently in the clinic testing three strategies.

The current vaccine has a boost. The South Africa strain, which is a 100% copy of that strain, has a boost. and the strategy of a mix, which is a 50-50 mass ratio of [INAUDIBLE] vaccine and the South African vaccine together in a single dose has a boost.

And we will get the clinical data very soon. Yesterday, we put online a manuscript for preclinical work issues that the mix boost shows the best performance with all the strains. But we'll have a clinical data soon because as you know, it's already in the clinic since March.

- Right. So looking at that, I know that, of course, you have all of this going on. But simultaneously, the news from Johnson and Johnson yesterday having to halt their vaccine certainly saw a boost in your shares. But has that translated-- or in addition to AstraZeneca's hurdles, have you seen that translate into more orders globally?

STEPHANE BANCEL: So it is clear that with the launch of those vaccines-- and as you know, we don't have, for any of those vaccines, years of data. Those are brand new vaccines because of the pandemic. The regulators and the companies are very careful.

And so every time there are side effect reported-- and we, like any other company, report side effects very regularly. We talk to the FDA, to the CDC-- is the regulatory agencies have to be very, very careful because as you know, we give vaccines to healthy people. And it's very important for the regulator to monitor that data because when you go from 30,000 people in the phase three, which is a very large risk free, but to millions of people-- you know, yesterday, we made a statement that we are not seeing so far blood clot issue with Moderna.

This is out of 64 million injections. That is much bigger n than 30,000. And so I think it's very wise for the regulator to be careful.

What is clear, I think, is you have countries now that are getting worried because you have some vaccine like ours up to 90 plus efficacy rate. Some are already in the 60s. So of course, 90 is better than 60.

And then you have this question about the potential side effects. And so indeed, governments around the world are placing a lot of phone calls to understand what's happening right now. We've [INAUDIBLE] supply more.

But also the variant-- I think people are saying to think about next fall, next winter. And people are worried about the variant.

As you can see, the variant is spreading in this country but also in Europe, around the world. And what I worry deeply is the next six months. We're going to go into a wave where you see an increased number of cases around the world because the southern hemisphere is going into the fall and the winter.

In the southern hemisphere, a lot of people are immunocompromised, like HIV positive patients. And it is not surprising to epidemiologists that we have a new variant from Brazil, a new variant from South Africa. And think about it.

This was during the summer when a lot of people were outside. So I only think that as you expand the number of people infected by this virus in the south, we could have more variants of concern. But what Moderna is committed to do is to keep chasing them.

If we believe we need to add a South Africa boost another mRNA, we can do that. We have done already in the clinic up to six mRNA for other programs. And so we are very confident we can technically do that.

- Well, talk to me about that, about that global view that you have, because right now, you've committed to producing up to a billion doses. You see potentially $18.5 billion in sales of the COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, you're also going to be applying for full licensure here in the US. How does that translate, especially with the backdrop of the discussion of the patent and the government's role in that and the need to vaccinate globally? What are you thinking about all that?

STEPHANE BANCEL: So the way I think about it is that 2021 is mostly called for. I mean, as you said, you know, more than $18 billion of advance purchase agreements signed already, many more discussions. But the discussions now are really turning to 2022 and governments being worried about boosts.

And as you can see, because of a different technology with different efficacy rates with different safety profile, this is things that the governments did not know a year ago. When the first orders were placed by governments around the world, there was no efficacy data on no vaccines. And so you saw governments like the US or Europe building a portfolio. But what you see now is the countries have a good sense for efficacy, for safety profile, and for the company's ability to deliver or not to the manufacturing commitment. And so I really believe Moderna is very well-positioned as we look into '22 where it's going to be a boost market with variants being really important to maintain that high efficiency so people do not get hospitalized.

- Well, let's move on to some of the other things you're working on. We know that the flu vaccine is something that's of interest. You're looking at a combination with the flu and COVID, ideally. Oh, what is the likelihood that we're going to get there this year, and where are we in terms of clinical trials?

STEPHANE BANCEL: Yes, so we're going to be in the clinic this year for flu. We should not anticipate to be able to go as fast as we went last year with COVID. As you know, the regulators and the companies did a lot of extraordinary things because of the pandemic.

I don't think the FDA will even consider any way for a flu vaccine because we have flu vaccines available and safety being very important for products like vaccines. We also as a manufacturer will not want to ask for any UA for such a product. So it's going to take a tiny bit more time, but it's not going to take five years.

And so our goal is to get very quickly the seasonal flu vaccine. And for me, the key point is going to be around the efficacy. As you know, today in a good year, current flu vaccines are around 60% efficacy. But in the bad year, it's down to 20% or 30%. A lot of people get hospitalized because they're not high efficacy vaccine and also because a lot of people do not want to get those vaccine because they are known to be low efficacy.

But we believe if we can bring a vaccine on the market at a 90% efficacy rate against flu, and especially if we can combine it, which we know we can technically, to a variant of concern for COVID every year, and that you have one shot where you can walk into your CVS in the fall and get your shots and have a nice winter, no getting flu, no getting COVID, I think that is a winning proposition. We can also add other ones.

This morning, one of the big news is around RSV, Respiratory Syncytial Virus. This is the number two cause of hospitalization in the US in 2019 for respiratory virus. There's no vaccine on the market.

One thing we showed this morning, we showed in human trials an 11x increase in neutralizing antibodies. And so we believe this is also another product that has a very high chance of getting to the finish line. We could also combine it, and you could think about the product, especially for adults and the elderly, that has all the virus that really could lead to hospitalization and with that really has a big impact on health care. And we think this could be many billions of annual sales for this product.

- No doubt. Definitely the COVID vaccine has set the tone for mRNA technology. We'll have to leave it there. Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, thank you so much for joining me today.

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