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Moderna Vaccine: The Power of mRNA Technology

·9 min read

The "warp speed" assistance of the US government to help pharmaceutical companies create COVID-19 vaccines has been an amazing moonshot for science and civilization.

It turned a small biotechnology firm, Moderna MRNA, from posting sales of $60 million in 2019 to potentially hitting $10 billion in 2021. Based in Cambridge MA, Moderna focuses on drug discovery, drug development, and vaccine technologies based exclusively on messenger RNA (mRNA) platforms.

RNA (ribonucleic acid) are like the "instructions with orders" that turn DNA code into reality. RNA molecules provide cells with specific instructions for making proteins, the building blocks of all life and metabolic systems.

To explain it to my kids, I say DNA is the recipe cook book, but RNA is the chef who makes the magic happen.

Look Ma! I Got Spikes, But No COVID!

Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer PFE contain the genetic instructions for making the SARS-CoV-2 "spike" protein. This protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Moderna's technology platform inserts synthetic, modified mRNA (modRNA) into human cells which then display the protein spike on their surface. This mRNA insertion that created the protein then essentially reprograms the cells to prompt immune responses.

In this way, mRNA vaccines teach our cells the recipe for how to make a protein that will trigger the desired immune response -- without having any live virus injected into the body.

Since the spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19, it's almost like that nasty coronavirus gave us an easy target to defeat it -- like an enemy flag telling us where and how to kill them at any time.

We win without injecting live virus into the body and once our cells follow the instructions of the recipe, our body's immune system does its job and makes antibodies to fight any such future invaders it recognizes.

Plus, as Canadian Health Services says on its website, "After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them."

New Approach to Vaccines

Here's how the CDC introduces the topic on their info page...

mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine to protect against infectious diseases. To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, they teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.

In other words, instead of delivering a virus or a viral protein, RNA vaccines deliver genetic information that allows the body's own cells to produce the anti-bodies with just a recipe.

Since mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19, you can't catch it from the injection. And while inserting anything to do with DNA into our bodies sounds dangerous, mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is protected.

So they don't affect or interact with our DNA in any way. The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.

Faster, Cheaper, Better

According to Anne Trafton, writing for MIT News, "Most vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 provoke an immune response that targets the coronavirus spike protein, which is found on the surface of the virus. Messenger RNA vaccines encode segments of the spike protein, and those mRNA sequences are much easier to generate in the lab than the spike protein itself."

In her December 11 article Explained: Why RNA vaccines for Covid-19 raced to the front of the pack, Trafton explains that many years of research have enabled scientists to quickly synthesize RNA vaccines and deliver them inside cells.

But it wasn't always so clear this would happen. As a novel technique only a few years old, it was frequently abandoned due to the side effects of inserting mRNA into cells. Trafton continues...

"Developing and testing a new vaccine typically takes at least 12 to 18 months. However, just over 10 months after the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was published, two pharmaceutical companies applied for FDA emergency use authorization of vaccines that appear to be highly effective against the virus."

Those two companies, as you now know, are Pfizer and Moderna. In late November, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine candidate, mRNA-1273, had shown preliminary evidence of 95% efficacy -- even better than Pfizer's vaccine -- in preventing COVID-19 disease in a Phase III trial, with only minor flu-like side effects.

While Pfizer made it through clinical trials faster and was granted FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) in Europe, the United States, and Canada, Moderna has its day of reckoning on Thursday.

But so far, the "better, faster, cheaper" nature of MRNA-1273 has a risk profile that few investors should be arguing with. In the video that accompanies this article, I detail the refrigeration requirements that make it superior to Pfizer's offering.

And I also touch on the rapid adaptability of the platform to coronavirus mutations. Because one thing we should all know for sure by now, is that SARS and COVID are not going away. As long as the earth's population of people and animals climbs, there will be new animal-to-human transmissions of disease.

The Short History of Warp Speed

In better news, there is nothing like a crisis to breed innovation. We wouldn't be talking about Moderna as a $60 billion company with $10 billion in forecast sales without the COVID-19 pandemic trying to knock us out.

In the video, I also take a whirlwind tour of what Moderna accomplished to take on its bigger rival Pfizer in such an amazingly short time. Granted, Moderna took advantage of nearly $1 billion dollars in R&D support from the White House's Operation Warp Speed to successfully produce its vaccine.

But I don't think most of us would have it any other way. We've spent orders of magnitude more mobilizing military and space missions in the past 80 years. So this drop in the bucket may have a greater return for civilization than anyone can calculate.

From Whence Moderna (courtesy of Wikipedia)

In 2010, ModeRNA Therapeutics was formed to commercialize the research of stem cell biologist Derrick Rossi. Rossi had developed a method of modifying mRNA by first transfecting it into human cells, then dedifferentiating it into stem cells which could then be further redifferentiated into desired target cell types. Rossi approached fellow Harvard University faculty member Tim Springer, who solicited co-investment from Kenneth Chien, Bob Langer, and venture capital firm Flagship Ventures.

I don't know much about any of these scientists, researchers, or investors. But I do know that the man who headed up Operation Warp Speed was on the board of Moderna. While many are crying about conflicts of interest, I am more interested the man's decades-long career in spearheading drug development through regulatory gauntlets.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, former head of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines department for 30 years and often called President Trump’s coronavirus vaccine czar, announced in early December that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines are safe, with only 10% to 15% of volunteers reporting “significantly noticeable” side effects. The side effects can last up to a day and a half.

The efficacy and safety of both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are superior to traditional adenovirus candidates like that from AstraZeneca AZN. (Moderna and AZN have an old partnership that I'll explore in a future article.)

What is MRNA Worth Potentially?

In the video, I also go over several analyst views of what would should pay for MRNA shares at this point, and the wildly disparate views of its sales potential in the next 2-3 years. One downgrade this morning from Jefferies biopharma analyst Michael Yee shared the point of view that...

The "stock is among the industry’s best this year compared to 54% gain for the SPDR S&P Biotech ETF XBI."

Well that pretty much explains it right there. You don't have an index like the Nasdaq 100 or the Biotech Equal Weight soar 50% without some big guns leading the charge. Even the big-cap Nasdaq Biotech ETF IBB is up 28% YTD.

What few are talking about right now is that the meteoric rise of Moderna will only help bolster the rest of its pipeline outside of coronaviruses. I am of course talking about the potential for "cancer vaccines" where the mRNA platform can be used to defeat that nefarious destroyer of lives at the core.

I'll do next week's video and article on that potential.

As I recorded this video and write the article on Wednesday the 16th, I decided I'm a Moderna investor again under $140. We previously took 40% gains in the stock and I plan to do it again, regardless of what the FDA says tomorrow.

Disclosure: I own shares of MRNA for the Zacks Healthcare Innovators portfolio.

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