The world is still months away from vaccinating enough people to reach the so-called herd immunity against COVID-19. But with the miracle serums now being mass-produced, the makers of the coronavirus vaccines are already looking into the future and exploring new therapies and vaccines using the same technology behind COVID-19 shots.
Last year, cancer drug maker Pfizer and Boston biotech startup Moderna each developed a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine in record time thanks to a breakthrough gene technology called messenger RNA (mRNA). Both firms are experimenting with mRNA-based vaccines for other illnesses, including cancer.
“In 2021 and 2022 Moderna is going to scale at a pace that has never happened before in biotech,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told Forbes in an interview this week.
The Boston-based startup has a number of projects under development. Its top priority is to modify its existing COVID-19 shot for new variants. Moderna recently shipped to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for testing a new batch of COVID-19 vaccines targeted specifically at the B.1.351 variant that was first discovered in South Africa.
There’s a growing consensus among scientists that the coronavirus will never truly go away and eventually become a seasonal illness like influenza. “You might end up with a thing like the flu where every year, every two years, you need a boost,” Bancel says.
Speaking of flu shots, Moderna also plans to develop a new flu vaccine that will be far more effective than available options in the market. The efficacy rates of current flu shots range from 30 percent to 60 percent. Moderna vows to make something at least 90 percent effective against the flu. Its COVID-19 vaccine is 95 percent protective against the coronavirus.
The company also has five mRNA-based cancer vaccines in various stages of development. Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine partner, Germany’s BioNTech, is working on similar projects.
Like a messenger, mRNA carries instructions for making antigen proteins found on the surface of a particular virus into the body’s cells and “train” the immune system to block the virus. In the case of cancer, scientists are investigating the possibility of having mRNA deliver the protein codes of tumors to body cells and prepare the immune system in a similar way.
“In the future, I think a lot of vaccines and therapeutics will be based on mRNA technology,” Bancel said. “It’s very, very low biology risk. It’s a human protein made in a human cell in your body.”
Pfizer, without the help of BioNTech, is also looking into developing new therapies using its own mRNA platform. (The core tech of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is provided by BioNTech. Pfizer is responsible for manufacturing and distributing doses.)
“There is a technology that has proven dramatic impact and dramatic potential,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Tuesday. “We are the best-positioned company right now to take it to the next step because of our size and our expertise.”