“This is a very good sign that we make an antibody that can stop the virus from replicating,” Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel said in an interview. The data “couldn’t have been better,” he said.
By contrast, the mRNA technology being used by Moderna and several others relies on the body’s own cells to produce viral proteins. Once injected into the body, the RNA slips into human cells and tells them to make virus-like proteins, in this case the “spike” protein on the surface of the coronavirus. If the vaccine works, those proteins then trigger the body to generate protective antibodies.
While the technology is new and hasn’t been used in an approved vaccine before, it allows researchers to move fast into trials. Moderna started working on its Covid-19 vaccine as soon as Chinese scientists put out the gene sequence for the virus in January. By late February, Moderna’s scientists had already delivered the first batch of candidate vaccines to researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. In mid-March, the first healthy volunteer received a dose in the government-sponsored safety trial.
The coronavirus is a gift for the emerging one-shot genetic solutions field. Vaccines are a perfect testing ground for the technology because the virus demands a quick effective solution where one or two doses give immunity.
Until now the genetic medicine field has been confined to orphaned diseases where they could get quick permitting because there was no available remedy. The quick turnaround in a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic is another example of that process in action. The difference this time is the pathogen is affecting millions of people rather than a very small subset of the population.
To date the clearest success stories of customised genetic solutions has been in the field of immuno-oncology. Since every cancer is slightly different the creation of customised medicines has been uniquely suited to genetic editing.
The long-term promise of the sector is in treating chronic conditions. Diseases like obesity, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis represent massive cost centres for both health systems and patients alike. There is clear potential for genetic solutions to all of them in the next decade but that is of course subject to regulatory permitting. The burden of proof is much higher for chronic conditions rather than deadly diseases so the proof of use case the coronavirus represents could not be more important.
Moderna is still furthest along, relative to competitors in the permitting process.
The broad biotech sector hit a new all-time today as it breaks out of a five-year range. While somewhat overbought in the short-term, a sustained move below the trend mean would be required to question medium-term scope for continued upside.
Intellia Therapeutics, one of the pioneers of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, is on the cusp of completing an 18-month base formation.