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Moderna CEO: COVID-19 vaccine ‘will protect against’ UK strain

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Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine will still protect against virus variants. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back to "Yahoo Finance Live." Shares of Moderna are popping in the session, up nearly 8% right now, as the drug maker says it is launching a clinical program to boost its vaccine's immunity to emerging variants of COVID-19, the company saying it is only doing so out of an abundance of caution. Let's bring in the CEO of Moderna, Stephane Bancel, who joins us live today, along with Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani.

Stephane, there's a lot of questions to get into. But I wonder if we can start broadly here because there are a lot of concerns about what these new COVID variants mean and whether, in fact, your vaccine can, in fact, respond to these mutations. What does the data tell you? And what-- what do you say to those people who say, should I move forward on this vaccine?

STEPHANE BANCEL: Yes, good morning and thank you for having us. So indeed this morning we published some data online that we analyzed-- we have a team with Dr. Fauci at the NIH-- regarding the new strain. As you know, quite a number of strains have been appearing that have caused concern. We're very pleased to report this morning that the level of neutralizing antibody seen with the strain first identified in the UK, also known as B117, is exactly at the same level as the antibody for the previous strain that was circulating and used for the phase three. So we are very pleased, of course, about that, and believe that this strain, which, as you know, the CDC said should be the most dominant strain in the US by March, the vaccine will protect against that strain.

The other strain we looked at and we published with data this morning is the strain first analyzed and identified in South Africa. What we show is we still make a high level of antibody, which is good news over short term. What we've noticed is the level of antibody is a bit lower than the level of antibody for the UK strain or for the wild type strain that was circulating in the US.

And so what does that mean? That means that we believe in the short term-- and I'm talking months or quarters-- this is not a problem. The level of antibody with the South Africa strain is actually higher than the level of antibody that you will get with if you were naturally infected.

So we believe that we provide immunity. So people should not get sick. Or in the worst case, they will get sick with a really mild disease, no hospitalization. What we don't know yet, because it's still a new virus, SARS-COVID-2, and because we don't have enough data over time because, as you know, the vaccine were just authorized in December-- but phase three started last July. We don't have five years of data. So nobody for no vaccine knows how long the protection will last.

And so because the South Africa starts from a lower base, what we think could happen over time is the antibody going down, especially in the elderly. And so that is why out of an abundance of caution, we've said this morning that we are taking into the clinic a new vaccine called mRNA 1273, like the old one that's authorized, dot 351, the South Africa strain. And so the goal of these vaccines, with this sequence of a South Africa strain, is to take it into the clinic as a boost, as a single dose, just in case if, in the fall, that strain become an issue and if we notice with the CDC and the NIH that the protection goes down, especially in the elderly, that we could be potentially ready with a new vaccine boost as a single-dose boost to give to people that would have been vaccinated now.

So yes, I would definitely tell people get vaccinated. You need to be protected now. If a new strain from the UK is coming really fast into the US, you want to be protected. The long-time effects of COVID are important, even if you don't get hospitalized. As you know, there's more and more documentation of a long COVID disease. So please get vaccinated. You will get protected.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Stephane, great to speak with you again. And it's great news this morning, of course. But looking at the long term, to your point about needing from the booster shot, we know that there isn't enough data yet to just predict about the durability. And that's exactly what the phase we're in now. But you are already looking at this. Walk us through the timeline of both the South African variant and the-- the-- the vaccine you're developing for that, plus of the booster and testing that. When will we start to see the results of both?

STEPHANE BANCEL: It's a great question. So we have not finalized the plans yet. So let me tell you a high-level plan that we're thinking about. We need, of course, to align with the FDA. This was all decided in the last few days when we saw the data.

We met with the team several times, including the weekend, talked to the board, and decided this was the prudent thing to do, which Dr. Fauci confirmed to me yesterday as I was engaging with him. And so the plan is to take this product quickly in the clinic. You know, last year we took the first vaccine within 42 days. And we were able to make a safe vaccine to give to humans.

So we're going to be going at the same type of speed. In the clinic, what we're going to do is to boost the phase-one participant. As you recall, the phase one last year started in March. So those people now are on the one-year clock, where they got their prime and their boost back last year. So we'll to be able to give them the boost, both of the existing vaccine. And to another group of people we're going to give a boost of that new potential vaccine candidate.

And then what we're going to do is in the summer time frame-- we will have to define if it's June, July, August, again, depend on discussion with the FDA. We give a boost to people who got the phase-three vaccine-- you remember, this started in July-- and to give a boost again of the same vaccine a year later or that new vaccine with a South Africa strain. Because it's only one dose, we will get the data a month after when you take the antibodies.

And what is done usually with seasonal flu is there's a regulatory path. We need again to align with the FDA on the path for this one. But there's a pathway. You don't look at efficacy, which, as you know, takes months, like happened last year, but that antibody level. And if you can show in the smaller data set, maybe 1,000, 2,000, again to be decided by the FDA how many people, that you inject the vaccine as a single dose, you look at antibody level through sample of blood work. And you could know sometime this summer if this vaccine works nicely as a boost and also the dose, because the dose that might be required might be lower.

And of a dose were lower, it would be great because it would mean we can make more vaccines to help more people faster. So we should know all that sometime, I would say, in the summer slash early fall. The thing we want to be ready for is the fall. As we learned this fall, respiratory viruses, same with the flu, always more frequent in the fall because we live indoors in the fall And so what we want to be sure is to be ready in case waning immunity in the elderly so that next fall and next winter we don't have to go again through a dreadful winter like we are going through now.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. I'm so glad you brought that up because we know experts have been warning this could be a cyclical thing that we deal with. And to that point, of course, we know that currently we're still not where we need to be with the vaccination. So can you walk us through, you know, from your perspective, what happens and what is happening with this confusion over the vaccine distribution once it leaves your warehouse, and also how much you've produced till now?

STEPHANE BANCEL: So we have not disclosed latest numbers. The numbers we disclosed recently was 18 million. What I can tell you is on the CDC website last night they said 41 million doses have been distributed. As you know, it's roughly a 50-50 between Pfizer and Moderna. And there are already 9.7 million, as of last night, people that got the Moderna vaccine in the US.

We said at the JPMorgan conference two weeks ago that we are totally on track to deliver 100 billion dose by the end of month. That is a plan we committed to the US government back last summer, and we're totally on track to that plan. So what I think there's a short-term and a long-term-- a mid-term, sorry, situation. The short term, as we saw, there were many problems for vaccination.

It is a very complex problem to vaccinate so many people so fast, especially when our health care workers are already overwhelmed by so many people in the hospital. So I think the US is getting in a very good position, I believe, between pharmacies, companies, you know, stadiums, sports arenas, and so on to vaccinate at a large scale. If you look at the numbers of vaccination per day, it is increasing. And I think it is going to continue to increase.

In terms of supply, the supply of manufacturers is also going to increase because this was a new technology. And so we have been building the manufacturing infrastructure all of last year. Usually it takes three to four years to be in manufacturing for launching a vaccine. And we were able to do that in 12 months.

So we are not yet at full capacity. But every month we're getting a bigger and bigger output. So I believe end of March, 100 million dose from Moderna and as we said in Q2, another 100 million dose. And so what I believe is we're going to be in the place that by sometime in the spring, you're going to have 20 million dose from Moderna, the 20 million dose from Pfizer.

You're still going to have, I hope, J&J with positive outcome. So I still believe that's we're in a good track in the US if we continue to make progress on vaccination in the states to get to be able to propose to any American above the age of 18, I think by sometime in the second quarter, access to a vaccine.

- Yeah, Mr. Bancel, love the way you're-- you're describing all this very clear for us to understand. When you look at it, though, over the last couple of weeks, it's been more than four million doses a week that you guys have been rolling out. To hit that 100-million-dose target you're talking about, looks like that's gonna have to need to increase to 7.5 million or somewhere in that ballpark, right, if those numbers sound right to you.

But as you kind of listen to these fears of rolling out a booster as well and capacity's been so constrained to increase production, what more can be done? Is it gonna need to be, you know, a situation where Moderna outsources some of that to people who can do it? What more needs to be done to increase production as you're describing it, if you're also gonna be working on a booster shot?

STEPHANE BANCEL: Yes. So production industry takes around six months to come online. It's a regulated business. This product is benefiting people. The last thing we want is to have antibody. And so it's a problem to think about. So anything we do today will have no impact in the first half of the year, no impact.

But as we think long term, to your point, the big question with the boost is going to be the dose. Do you need 25 or 50 or 100 microgram? The current product that is authorized by FDA is 100 microgram twice, a prime and a boost. If in the fall, we need only one dose as a boost for everybody because they've been immunized either via the Pfizer or the Moderna-- I hope the Johnson & Johnson vaccine soon. You get to a place where you need only one dose that's half a mass. And if a dose was 50 or 25 microgram, which is possible because your immune system is already prepared, so you might need to have a big input increase of capacity, sorry, because half a mass and then half a dose or a quarter of a dose, you could have potentially up to eight times more product out as a boost.

- And lastly, I mean, we talked a lot about profitability in this space. Of course, you guys got $1 billion or close to it back from the US government when we were working on producing this and really doing the research here. No doubt you guys delivered on that. I mean, I don't want to overlook the fact that this is, you know, a very effective vaccine. But what is pricing look like when you look out to the booster shot and how that might fall here in pricing all that, since critics might have, you know, raised the issue here with Moderna and Pfizer making some profits on this relative to J&J and AstraZeneca. How do you look at that issue and where do you think you could go from there?

STEPHANE BANCEL: Yes. I mean, there are several points. As we said since we started talking about pricing, Moderna has never made a penny of profit in its history. We have invested several billion dollars [INAUDIBLE] to build this platform. Clearly the platform is working well now, given this authorized product and the speed at which we developed it.

And so we think it is fair to have a small profit on the product. If you look at this, we have been selling to the US government the product between $16-- if you add the grants, that's around $20, $25. A lot of vaccines are sold in the US hundreds of dollar. The value of this vaccine if you look at just the direct medical costs divided by all the Americans, it's several hundred dollar per person.

And so we think it's an extreme value that is being given to the system, as it should be. This is a pandemic. I think the boost is going to be a different story because the question is, how many people, how many companies are going to have a boost that is effective? Some technologies will not be able to go fast enough. Think about it. Some of the older technology they're quoting, they have said that they won't have a vaccine until the end of the year.

By the time we get the boost, and they cannot move so fast, the new technology, the big question is, how effective is going to be the boost? Because the more dose you give of a dead virus, the more immune resistance you're going to get in the case of nRNA. We're using fat, lipid, to put around a molecule to inject in your body. So I think the big question, look at what happened with Merck this morning.

Merck announced, which is really sad, that they dropped their two vaccine candidates. So it's going to be really interesting to see how the world looks like and again the value being brought by the vaccines. I believe a value of COVID vaccine-- and I believe SARS-COV-2 is going to stay with humans forever. We're going to have to have boosts adapted to a virus, like we have for flu. It's the same thing. They are both mRNA viruses. And we're going to have to live with it forever.

- Yeah. And that's just kind of the reality we're seeing ourselves fall into here. But, you know, obviously, with you guys working on this, interesting to see all the adjustments being made to catch up to these variants. I can't thank you enough for coming on here. The CEOof Moderna, Stephane Bancel, thanks again for joining us alongside Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani as well. Be well, sir. Thanks again.