Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Jeff Rumans)

'Learned a lot last year': Af­ter Covid-19 suc­cess, Mod­er­na's Stéphane Ban­cel plans to give rest of pipeline a big push

A year ago, Stéphane Ban­cel would have de­scribed Mod­er­na as cau­tious — walk­ing step-by-step to in­ves­ti­gate whether mR­NA vac­cines could pre­vent a host of virus­es. Then the pan­dem­ic hit, and the Cam­bridge, MA-based biotech got a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar wind­fall to pro­duce the world’s sec­ond-ever au­tho­rized mR­NA vac­cine in a mat­ter of months.

What’s next? Ban­cel is plan­ning a big ac­cel­er­a­tion and ex­pan­sion of the rest of the pipeline, in­clud­ing the com­pa­ny’s Phase III-ready can­di­date for cy­tomegalovirus (CMV), which was the lead pro­gram be­fore Covid-19 came around.

“We have a fi­nan­cial means that we nev­er had be­fore,” Ban­cel said. The com­pa­ny’s stock $MR­NA, which sold for un­der $20 for most of 2019, is now fly­ing at close to $150 apiece.

“The ap­petite to in­vest in in­no­v­a­tive vac­cines is, I would say, al­most lim­it­less,” he added.

As part of its sec­ond an­nu­al Vac­cines Day Wednes­day, Mod­er­na of­fered up­dates on its key pro­grams, in­clud­ing vac­cines for res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­cy­tial virus (RSV), CMV, HIV and the flu. It al­so read out 6-month da­ta for its Covid-19 vac­cine, and pre­clin­i­cal re­sults that sug­gest its boost­er can­di­dates pro­duce a suf­fi­cient im­mune re­sponse against new vari­ants.

“For 10 years, we be­lieved mR­NA vac­cines could be high-ef­fi­ca­cy, fast and with great man­u­fac­tur­ing scale-up. Now we know that,” Ban­cel said.

First up is Mod­er­na’s CMV vac­cine, which is sched­uled to en­ter Phase III lat­er this year. The can­di­date com­bines six mR­NAs in a sin­gle vial; the mR­NAs en­code for two anti­gens lo­cat­ed on the sur­face of CMV. Why so many mR­NAs? To pro­vide a broad spec­trum of neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­bod­ies, thus max­i­miz­ing the chance of ef­fi­ca­cy, Ban­cel ex­plained.

“Some bi­ol­o­gy is straight­for­ward like Covid. The spike pro­tein, as we’ve shown, is enough,” he said. “But for very com­plex virus­es, what we need to do to help ed­u­cate the im­mune sys­tem is to make a lot of dif­fer­ent an­ti­bod­ies.”

Sev­en-month da­ta from a Phase II study show the can­di­date, mR­NA-1647, was gen­er­al­ly well-tol­er­at­ed, ac­cord­ing to Mod­er­na. In CMV-seroneg­a­tive par­tic­i­pants who re­ceived three dos­es, neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­body geo­met­ric mean titers (GMTs) against ep­ithe­lial cell in­fec­tion were at least 20-fold high­er than the base­line GMT of the CMV-seropos­i­tive group, the biotech said. And in CMV-pos­i­tive pa­tients who re­ceived three dos­es, neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­body GMTs in­creased to at least 6.8-fold over base­line.

CMV is a com­mon virus that in­fects more than half of adults by the time they’re 40, ac­cord­ing to the CDC. Most peo­ple show no symp­toms — but about 1 in 5 ba­bies born with the in­fec­tion suf­fer long-term health prob­lems.

Once you’re in­fect­ed with CMV, you have it for life, Ban­cel said. And it’s be­lieved that while your im­mune sys­tem spends a lot of en­er­gy fight­ing CMV, it’s spend­ing less en­er­gy on oth­er things, like fight­ing can­cer, he added.

“I al­ready be­lieve that CMV could have a very pro­found both midterm im­pact on birth de­fects, and po­ten­tial­ly long-term im­pact on can­cer in­ci­dence and over­all health of peo­ple,” Ban­cel said.

Mod­er­na al­so read out in­ter­im Phase I da­ta for its RSV vac­cine, mR­NA-1345. There’s cur­rent­ly no vac­cine ap­proved for RSV, the lead­ing cause of res­pi­ra­to­ry ill­ness in young chil­dren, al­though sev­er­al drug­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Glax­o­SmithK­line, are rac­ing to de­vel­op one. The Phase I study is as­sess­ing mR­NA-1345 in younger adults (18 to 49 years old), old­er adults (65 to 79 years old) and chil­dren (be­tween 1 and just un­der 5 years old).

The in­ter­im analy­sis came from the younger adult co­horts, which are ful­ly en­rolled. At one-month post-vac­ci­na­tion, a sin­gle shot of ei­ther 50 μg or 100 μg was well-tol­er­at­ed, and the can­di­date boost­ed neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­body titers against both serotypes of RSV with “no ap­par­ent dose re­sponse,” Mod­er­na said.

The geo­met­ric mean fold rise in neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­body rel­a­tive to base­line was at least 20.5 for RSV-A and at least 11.7 for RSV-B, the com­pa­ny added. It plans on ex­plor­ing po­ten­tial com­bi­na­tions of the can­di­date with its oth­er vac­cines against oth­er res­pi­ra­to­ry pathogens in chil­dren and old­er adults.

As for HIV, Mod­er­na plans to launch three Phase I tri­als this year, in­clud­ing one in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the In­ter­na­tion­al AIDS Vac­cine Ini­tia­tive (IAVI) and the Bill and Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion. That can­di­date, mR­NA-1644, will aim to use a “nov­el ap­proach” to elic­it HIV neu­tral­iz­ing an­ti­bod­ies, Mod­er­na said, with the study aim­ing to iden­ti­fy and use mul­ti­ple anti­gens for germline tar­get­ing and im­muno-fo­cus­ing. A sec­ond vac­cine hope­ful, mR­NA-1574, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the NIH, will use a sim­i­lar ap­proach with mul­ti­ple na­tive-like trimer­ic anti­gens.

Ban­cel said mR­NA has the po­ten­tial to over­come the unique chal­lenges of de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine for HIV — in­clud­ing its abil­i­ty to rapid­ly mu­tate — by com­bin­ing high ef­fi­ca­cy with speed and flex­i­bil­i­ty of man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“If you think about old tech­nol­o­gy like pro­tein tech­nol­o­gy, it takes so long to make a prod­uct. It is so ex­pen­sive to de­vel­op a sin­gle drug that it lim­its what you can do,” he said. But mR­NA is like a piece of soft­ware — it’s al­ways the same man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

“We can move in 30 days from a se­quence to a prod­uct ready to go in­to clin­i­cal tri­al, we can move very quick­ly for vari­ants of virus evo­lu­tion, and that in­creas­es again the ef­fi­ca­cy of a prod­uct and al­lows you to adapt to bi­ol­o­gy,” Ban­cel said.

Ban­cel al­so has a high-ef­fi­ca­cy flu vac­cine in the works, which is ex­pect­ed to en­ter Phase I this year. Even­tu­al­ly, he hopes to ex­plore com­bi­na­tion can­di­dates that pro­tect against the flu, SARS-CoV-2, RSV and hu­man metap­neu­movirus (hM­PV).

“This is re­al­ly the big is­sue. If you could have a prod­uct that had high-ef­fi­ca­cy in Covid, high-ef­fi­ca­cy in flu and high-ef­fi­ca­cy in RSV, you will have a mas­sive im­pact on pub­lic health, and hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and mor­tal­i­ty of el­der­ly,” he said.

Yes­ter­day, Mod­er­na an­nounced that its Covid jab — the com­pa­ny’s crown jew­el — proved more than 90% ef­fec­tive against all cas­es af­ter an up­dat­ed re­view of 900-plus cas­es from the Phase III COVE study. It was 95% ef­fec­tive against se­vere cas­es, and a study with 33 Phase I par­tic­i­pants showed that an­ti­bod­ies per­sist­ed 6 months af­ter the sec­ond dose.

The com­pa­ny is now push­ing for­ward with boost­er can­di­dates to ad­dress con­cern­ing vari­ants, which were shown to elic­it neu­tral­iz­ing titers in mice that were sim­i­lar to those pro­duced against the orig­i­nal virus.

“There’s a lot of things that I think we are do­ing dif­fer­ent­ly as we look for­ward, which is why I think we can re­al­ly com­press the time­lines of vac­cine de­vel­op­ment,” Ban­cel said. “I think the agency and the in­dus­try learned a lot last year.”

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