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Moderna coronavirus vaccine shows promising results in early stage

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In an early stage clinical trial, Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine produced antibodies that will help ‘neutralize’ coronavirus in patients. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bances joins Yahoo Finance's On the Move to discuss.

Video Transcript

- Shares of Moderna are up a little bit over 23% right now on news of some positive results from their phase 1 vaccine trials, vaccine to fight the coronavirus, COVID-19. And joining us to discuss this is the CEO of Moderna, Stephane Bances. Thank you so much for being here, sir.

STEPHANE BANCES: Thank you for having me.

- Also want to let you know that Anjalee Khemlani is joining us. She covers the coronavirus for us. And we're going to break down so much of what's going on here. But let me just jump in with a very simple question. You tested, or you-- this phase 1 was 45 people. As I read, eight of them produced the necessary kind of antibody to inactivate the virus. If this is all good and it gets us to an actual vaccine, how quickly can we start inoculating people?

STEPHANE BANCES: So that will also depend on the FDA. So the current plan is the following. We said this morning we are working hard with the agency to be able to stop at phase 3, thousands of people tested in a phase 3 study as early as July. It will take a bit of time to enroll thousands of people. And then you have to basically run the placebo control study to see with natural infection in the fall. So the earliest time could be us ready to send all of our data to the FDA toward the end of the year. And then it will really depend on how long it would take them to then approve it.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Stephane, Anjalee here. In looking at the results that you had, one of the concerns I know we heard earlier on the call was that when you get to the phase 3 point, what will the population of patients be? In addition to that, you're working with a new technology. So now, with these results, have any of those obstacles come to rest? And what do you see as the challenges ahead?

STEPHANE BANCES: Yes, so the good news is that this is not our first vaccine. This is actually our tenth vaccine in clinical studies around the world. We've done a lot of vaccines, so we start to understand the technology a little bit. Of course, there is no product approved yet with messenger RNA. But we think that the understanding of the science is pretty robust now. We have had a great dialogue with the agency. As you know, this is partnered with NIAD, so Dr. Tony Fauci's team actually ran the phase 1.

And so we are going to continue to work and make sure we have a very big safety database. I think that's going to be the key. We have not disclosed yet the size of a phase 3 because we're still discussing with the FDA. But as soon as the size of a phase 3 and the final dose for phase 3 would be agreed upon, we would of course communicate those things. But I would expect many thousands of people across different age range, comorbidity. We are in, already, discussion as we speak because, as you know, the epidemiology of the virus and the type of disease it creates, it's important that we understand who we can protect with this vaccine, potentially.

- Stephane, it's Julie here. And on that note, there have been questions about whether possessing the antibodies or having had COVID-19 actually means that you have immunity going forward. So how do we then, once you test that the vaccine does indeed give one the antibodies, how does one test then that antibodies actually prevent you from getting COVID-19?

STEPHANE BANCES: Yes, that's a virus, as you know, that's still very new, and we are all still learning about this virus and the disease associated with the virus, like in children, almost on a daily basis. So the way we think about it is just the old traditional way. You have to run a very large phase 3 placebo-controlled study. And the question we're going to be asking ourselves, and the agency, as well, is the efficacy rate. How many people that get vaccine in the same region, in the same town, in the same cities get protected thanks to the vaccination versus the people that were on placebo. And we're going to be able to know the answer very clearly. This is going to be a very large study, so we're going to know is the vaccine a 50% efficacy, 90% efficacy, 10% efficacy. We don't know yet.

The great news of this morning is the following. We know humans can make neutralizing antibodies to the virus. This was shown in the labs of the NIH. That's the data we presented this morning. And we've shown that the quantity, the titer of the antibody was at or above the level of people that got disease. So that's a good indication.

The other piece that I think is important to look at it together is we announced this morning that we're able, in a mice challenge study, to show we could protect from the virus replicating in the lungs of the mice. So the way you do it is you basically vaccinate the animals and then you run the placebo study, placebo control, where you give a very high dose of the virus, and you try to see can you protect the virus from duplicating in the lungs. And we did show this was possible. All the animals had full protection in terms of copies or lack of copies of the virus in their lungs.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Right. And on that note, I know that you spoke earlier and addressed this earlier, but pricing is one of the things that I think many are concerned about, especially when you're talking about accessibility of the virus because of the unprecedented global demand that you're faced with. I know that the discussions haven't happened yet, but you-- your company specifically has had a lot of input from the federal government, and support there. Is that going to be a major factor in how you price?

STEPHANE BANCES: So I think, like any products, we want to start by doing the analysis on what's the value of this vaccine, because you don't pick numbers out of thin air. I mean, some might. That's not how we intend to do it. So we're going to work with professional companies who do that for a living, work with academic groups that have models to look at the value of a medicine like this vaccine to understand, OK, what do we think it's roughly worth.

Then we're going to, of course, look at not wanting to maximize profit. This is not the product where we're going to want to maximize profit. We have a very big portfolio. We understand it's a pandemic. So this is not the price where we say this is the price where it's the full value of a product, and because there's nothing else in the market, we're going to charge all of that value. That is not our intent. We want to use the first principle of value and of not maximizing.

The piece that's going to be interesting, I think, to think about, like the other product that are used in the health care system, you know, is people pay for masks, you know, people pay for ventilators, people pay for medicines, people pay, of course, for nurses and the docs that are the frontline, you know, risking their life for helping others. So we need to understand what is the value of this vaccine so that we can start to have a dialogue around it.

- And Stephane, how quickly can you ramp up production? Assuming this is the vaccine, can you transfer this technology to other companies? For instance, Johnson & Johnson is already producing its vaccine at risk. They say it'll take at least through the end of next year to have a billion doses, and they're not even testing just yet. So how quickly could you ramp up production?

STEPHANE BANCES: Yeah, so that's a great question. So as you can appreciate, when we started 2020, we did not plan to be ready for a pandemic. The plant we have in Massachusetts is able, at full capacity, to produce around 100 million dose, assuming the 50-microgram, or middle dose, into that phase 1 study. Of course, for most commercial vaccine, 100 million dose is a large number, but for a pandemic on the planet, it's a very tiny number. And so a couple months ago, the team and I start to brainstorm, OK, how do we get to a billion dose per year. And we set that as a kind of-- of a scale we were looking for, kind of a 10x from where we could go entirely.

And so we announced two weeks ago a strategic partnership with Lonza. Lonza is one of the oldest and biggest contract manufacturer in the pharmaceutical industries. They are based in Switzerland. They have plants around the world. And we've announced this partnership. We have the ability to go up to a billion dose per year. We've announced also that we're already doing technology transfer to Londa, that it will be completed in June.

And as of July this year, Lonza factory in New Hampshire is going to start making at risk, because the product won't be approved, obviously, at risk as many doses as they can. In our Massachusetts plant that is run by the Moderna team, we are doing the same, making as much product as we can. And we're going to enable several plants of Lonza to get over time-- it won't happen, you know, in two weeks, but to get over time to an annual run rate of a billion dose per year.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Stephane, the industry has been under such immense pressure, not just from the outbreak, but even pre-outbreak, discussing development methods and pricing pressures. Do you feel like right now there's even more pressure to have maybe a more cautious outlook than before for products, or has nothing changed?

STEPHANE BANCES: To say that nothing has changed when we're in the middle of one in 100-year pandemic would be a bit strange. But I think I go back to value, which is think about how much the current pandemic is costing hospitals and the states. I've had the chance to being in Boston. We have an amazing hospital in Boston. And I know several of different leaders of those hospital. And they tell me the cost today just taking care of COVID is just incredible.

And so we need to think about all of those pieces, because those are real dollars going out of, you know, government's pocket or insurance pocket or consumers' pocket if they don't have insurance, unfortunately. And so we need to figure out a way to reduce that drain of dollars into health care system just to make sure people don't die.

- Stephane Bances, CEO of Moderna, we wish you the best and hope that this is the vaccine that we're all looking for. Good luck to your team. We'll be right back.