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‘No Shortcuts’: Coronavirus Vaccine Developed by Cambridge-Based Company Begins Phase One of Testing

Moderna and many other Cambridge-based biotechnology companies maintain offices in Kendall Square.
Moderna and many other Cambridge-based biotechnology companies maintain offices in Kendall Square. By Shera S. Avi-Yonah
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

Moderna, a Cambridge-based biotechnology company, is among several firms currently working to develop a potential vaccine against COVID-19.

Founded in 2010, Moderna focuses on the use of messenger RNA, or mRNA, to develop and manufacture medicines for a wide variety of diseases. Medicines that use mRNA technology facilitate the synthesis of proteins to fight and prevent diseases.

“The Moderna vaccine platform, which is an mRNA-based vaccine platform, came out of an effort over the past maybe decade, maybe a little bit longer, to develop vaccine platforms that were scalable and able to respond quickly in the face of new pathogens,” Sarah Fortune, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said.

“So exactly this,” she added, referring to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

On March 16, the National Institutes of Health announced that the first participant in its Phase One study for the vaccine manufactured by Moderna, mRNA-1273, was dosed.

A week later, Moderna reported that a commercially-available vaccine would likely not be available for at least 12 to 18 months. However, under emergency use, the vaccine could potentially be available to certain individuals, such as healthcare workers, by the fall of 2020.

Barry R. Bloom, a professor at the School of Public Health, said developing a vaccine in a rapid period of time is among the principal challenges facing companies like Moderna.

“The problem with pandemics is that we really don't have time,” he said. “With the caseload and fatality rate that is currently being seen, we need something faster.”

Bloom said the process of formulating and testing the vaccine takes time that the world simply does not have.

“You have to formulate it. You have to test it in Phase One, Two and Three studies to show in the first two that it's safe and the third it's effective,” he said. “And that takes years.”

“We can’t wait 14 years. We can’t wait two years,” he added.

Aside from the issue of time, Fortune said there are “biologic challenges” associated with developing a safe and effective vaccine.

“There are obviously risks, because all immune responses are not the same,” Fortune said. “This is a virus, where it is clear that part of the reason people get sick is that the immune response to the virus is more vigorous and destructive in some people than others.”

Bloom emphasized that “there are no shortcuts” in testing the vaccine.

Nonetheless, he said it is “astonishing” Moderna and the other biotechnology companies working on developing a vaccine were able to do so much in so little time.

“I give Moderna and the other companies an enormous amount of credit for being enormously innovative, starting with only the cDNA sequence, which is the counterpart to the RNA sequence of the virus, and just going from the genome right to making vaccines,” he said.

While Fortune noted that a vaccine is not an entirely “straightforward solution,” she said she believes it would be the “most effective solution.”

“It may be that there are a bunch of different successful candidates, and different vaccines would be used in different places in the world in an ideal situation,” she added.

Apart from developing a vaccine, Yonatan Grad, a professor at the School of Public Health, noted the importance of social distancing and widespread testing for coronavirus, calling the latter “the backbone of a response.”

“We have to be able to quickly identify infected individuals to assist within the context of the health care system,” he said.

Bloom said that while he does not think one vaccine is a “magic pill,” he is hopeful it could save lives.

“One vaccine that produces even a reasonable amount — 60% protection in a naive population — would probably generate enough herd immunity to stop the epidemic,” Bloom said.

“And that's what I think these companies are really keen to do,” he added.

Moderna confirmed Monday that it is increasing manufacturing in order to produce millions of doses per month. The company noted, however, that its ability to scale up production to this level is contingent on investment and on expanding manufacturing capabilities.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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