Covid: “The pandemic has revealed the full potential of messenger RNA technology”

Sandra Fournier, the general manager of Moderna France confides in the history of the company, on the Covid and also on the tremendous hope that messenger RNA technology arouses on a good number of pathologies.

How was Moderna able to produce a vaccine in such a short time?

Moderna exists since 2010, Stéphane Bancel, the CEO who is also a Marseillais, joined the company in 2011 and since then, Moderna researchers have been working on messenger RNA technology. They really made the bet at the time of this technology.

Covid has made it possible to reveal the full potential of the messenger RNA technology on which we have been working for ten years already.

We had acquired such expertise, such know-how that finally in January 2020, when the sequencing of the virus responsible for Covid was unveiled, we just had to enter this sequencing code on our platform and in 42 days, we have successfully produced our first batch of candidate vaccine for clinical trials.

At the beginning of 2020, we were only researchers. And in a few months, it was the progress of the tests, the clinical trials, a marketing authorization, then the marketing of our first product. We also had to build our first manufacturing and production plant.

In 2021, we managed to produce and deliver 807 million doses of our vaccine, 25% of which were destined for low- and middle-income countries.

And this year, our goal is to produce between 2 and 3 billion doses of vaccine.

On this production of vaccines precisely, are you going to adapt the vaccine to the new variants?

You should know that the booster dose of the Moderna vaccine is less dosed because the amount halved of the active ingredient in the booster is sufficient to reboost the immune system.

Our platform allows us to continuously adapt candidate vaccines. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been able to work on recall candidates and on the variants that were emerging.

For the start of the school year, we are preparing a candidate bivalent booster in which there will be two strands of messenger RNA: a strand that codes for the ancestral strain and a strand that codes for the Omicron variant, to be effective on all variants.

Do you think that there will therefore be other booster doses since you are preparing some? And does it seem useful to you?

This is not our mainspring, our objective is really to watch the evolution of the virus on a daily basis, how it mutates, to be vigilant as to the emergence of new variants and to adapt our candidate vaccines in permanently and to put them in clinical trials as well as to be able to generate efficacy and tolerance data.

It is then up to the public authorities, the government to take the decision of whether they want to set up an annual booster and if so for what type of population.

The virus, it mutates, it evolves, so as it mutates and evolves, it continues to put pressure on our immune system. So having a regular reminder to boost our immune system is important.

What would you say to people who are skeptical about the vaccine and precisely about this “new technology” of messenger RNA? Although it is not new…

Messenger RNA research has been around for 50 years. mRNA technology has not come out of the hat. And we at Moderna have been working on it for 10 years and we have really acquired an expertise.

Then today you have hundreds of millions of people who have been vaccinated with this messenger RNA technology around the world, it’s generated an awful lot of data.

With regard to our Moderna vaccine, nearly 700 million people have been vaccinated worldwide and all the data supports the fact that our vaccine is safe, effective and well tolerated.

It should also be specified that messenger RNA is an information molecule. So already compared to other types of vaccines, you do not inject a piece of the virus. You give information to your organization.

The messenger RNA will deliver information to your body so that it produces the Spike protein, the characteristic signature of the virus responsible for Covid, and it will begin to produce neutralizing antibodies.

And to reassure skeptical people, messenger RNA vaccines, in a few days, there is no longer any trace of the vaccine in the body.

Does the lifting of patents on vaccines decided by the WTO worry you?

Moderna took ten years to acquire this expertise. It is an extremely complex technology. Our Covid vaccine candidate requires more than 600 ingredients. Today, there are only two laboratories that have mastered this expertise and are capable of producing in quantity to cover the world.

I don’t think the lifting of the patents will change anything.

How many people have been vaccinated by Moderna?

Worldwide, I think it’s close to 700 million.

In France, 6.5 million people received their primary vaccination and around 12 million received the booster. This increases the number of doses administered in France to around 26 million.

Moderna is also working on other vaccines such as the one being prepared against HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS?

We have two HIV vaccine candidates that are both in phase 1. So it’s really at the very, very beginning.

The objective of the first trial will be to see if the fact of administering messenger RNA will lead to the production of neutralizing antibodies. The second is designed to assess the safety and immunogenicity of messenger RNA vaccines targeting the HIV envelope.

I am very happy to see that there is new hope emerging with these two vaccine candidates. Especially since we still have around 170,000 people in France living with HIV.

What about cytomegalovirus?

When Covid arrived, the first candidate vaccine that we actually thought of marketing was the one against cytomegalovirus.

We were working a lot on latent viruses. Why are we interested in latent viruses? Because these are viruses, when you are infected they remain in your body and one day you have a drop in immunity and suddenly they can be reactivated.

Cytomegalovirus is one of the most dangerous viruses for pregnant women, because it is one of the main causes of congenital malformations in newborns.

We also have other candidate vaccines on other latent viruses: mononucleosis, varicella and shingles and herpes.

How many vaccines are you currently working on?

We have 46 vaccine candidates in development on our platform. We have personalized cancer treatments, we also have therapeutic solutions for rare diseases.

So the field of possibilities is gigantic! I am convinced that this messenger RNA technology will revolutionize the world of medicine! We are only at the beginning of the story of messenger RNA.

Finally the Covid will make it possible to serve research, otherwise Moderna could not work on such projects?

Absolutely. We still had about twenty candidate vaccines two years ago, today we have 46. There were 800 researchers at the start of the pandemic compared to more than 3,000 employees today.

And indeed we have reinjected a third of the turnover generated last year into research and development.

So it has helped to dramatically accelerate this research on our messenger RNA technology and to advance vaccine candidates in other areas.

This will also allow us to build factories: we announced that we were going to build a production factory in Canada, Australia and Kenya.

We also have a whole public health program, where we are committed to advancing research programs to conduct clinical trials for the 15 viruses that are considered to be of concern by the WHO, such as Ebola, Crimean-Congo virus, etc.

In this way, we will be able to respond much more quickly to possible pandemics that may come.

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