The technology behind the first two COVID vaccines – genetic instructions in the form of messenger RNA – is now taken for granted, with billions of people having received the shots.
But years of struggle and uncertainty preceded that success, most long before the pandemic hit. Wall Street Journal reporter and Glenside resident Peter Loftus goes behind the scenes of his new book, The Messenger: Moderna, the vaccine and the business gamble that changed the world.
Among the opening scenes in the book, from Harvard Business Review Press: A chance meeting at a photocopier between University of Pennsylvania scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, in the late 1990s. The pair joined forces to demonstrate the promise of mRNA after most scientists had given it up, publishing the first of several pivotal studies in 2005. Moderna was founded five years later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, developing mRNA both for use in vaccines and to treat cancer, although initially with mixed results.
Loftus, who has covered the pharmaceutical industry for The Wall Street Journal since 2013, spoke to The Inquirer in a conversation lightly edited for length and clarity.
Now that vaccines have been so successful, how could mRNA be useful in making other drugs?
I think that’s the million dollar question, or I guess at this point, a multi-billion dollar question. What they were able to show with the mRNA vaccine and COVID helps establish that this could be a useful technology for future epidemics, to be able to respond quickly as it happened in 2020, especially against respiratory viruses. They are also working on vaccines for other viruses, including HIV, which is notoriously difficult to find a vaccine against. The other big bucket of potential uses for mRNA is in treatments for people already diagnosed with a disease, rather than as a preventative vaccine. There’s a lot of hope that it might work for something like cancer or a rare disease. I really think it’s too early to say for sure if this will work.
When vaccine trials began to show promise, there was debate about how much credit to give to Operation Warp Speed (the Trump administration’s effort to spur development of COVID vaccines and treatments) . Where are you on this question?
Moderna has benefited from extensive involvement with the federal government. They were already working with the National Institutes of Health even before the pandemic, and then very early in the pandemic, they started with the NIH to design the vaccine and plan to test it. In May 2020, when Operation Warp Speed was officially created, I think it took it to a new level. Pfizer, which was also developing an mRNA vaccine, along with BioNTech, because it was so much bigger, actually chose to minimize its involvement in Operation Warp Speed, even though it was essentially part of it.
The underlying science dates back long before that, with some of Penn’s earliest discoveries. What does this tell you about the pace of drug development?
These things that end up being breakthroughs, whether it’s a vaccine or a drug, that can seem to suddenly appear on people’s radar, might have this long history that really took a while to pass basic lab work in the lab of some university scientists. the road to get to a pharmaceutical company. Sometimes it takes a person to walk into an area of research and see it in a different way.
You describe internal tensions at Moderna about whether to move forward with the COVID vaccine, in part because the company’s earlier Zika virus vaccine didn’t work well. What have you learned?
Most people would have assumed that the company was enthusiastic from the start. But there was a debate period of several weeks. Before jumping into human testing, some people at the company asked, “Is this the right thing to do?” In February 2020, it wasn’t really clear that the coronavirus was going to spread as widely as it did. Some people have said, “If we throw everything we have on COVID, it’s going to take resources away from other projects.”
Some have criticized how Moderna executives reaped financial rewards for a vaccine that has received so much federal support, like the recently approved $926 million “golden parachute” for CEO Stephane Bancel. Do you think these reviews are fair?
Really almost from the start, there were criticisms of the financial enrichment of Moderna as a company and its leaders. And they got that government funding, in the form of outright research and development support of well over a billion dollars, and the supply contracts are worth several billion more. I touch the critics, but also the people who defend the system that allows Moderna to profit so much. It spent a decade growing and putting all that effort into R&D, including spending its investors’ money with no product revenue for a decade. Advocates say it’s an example of rewarding innovation and investment. I’d rather just present those views, and readers can decide for themselves.
What prompted you to do a book on Moderna rather than Pfizer and BioNTech, the two companies that made the other mRNA vaccine?
I thought it would be an interesting way to tell some stories. One was the story of the pandemic through the eyes of this company that most people had never heard of before, and all the drama and suspense along the way. I also saw a different story, that a lot of innovation in medicine and in the pharmaceutical industry comes from these small, young companies that are really doing a lot of cutting-edge research.