Moderna Inc. said its COVID-19 vaccine was 94.5% effective in a preliminary analysis of a large, late-stage clinical trial, another sign that a fast-paced hunt by scientists and pharmaceutical companies is paying off with potent new tools that could help control a worsening pandemic.
The highly positive readout comes just a week after a similar vaccination developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE was found to be more than 90% effective in an interim analysis. Both shots rely on a technology called “messenger RNA” that has never been used to build an approved vaccine. Soon, millions of people around the world could be spared from illness by the breakthroughs.
A first analysis of data from more than 30,000 volunteers showed Moderna’s vaccine prevented virtually all symptomatic cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the company said. UAB participated in the Moderna vaccine study.
Moderna shares rose as much as 15% in New York. The rally in global shares following the news represented about $567 billion in market value added to the MSCI All Country World Index.
Only five participants who received two doses of the vaccine became sick, compared with 90 coronavirus cases in participants who received a placebo, according to a review by an independent data safety monitoring board appointed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The vaccine also appeared to be effective in preventing the most serious COVID-19 infections. There were no severe cases among people who got the vaccine, compared with 11 in volunteers who received placebo shots, according to Moderna’s statement.
“The thing that got me the most excited today was the severe disease,” said Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel. “That for me is a game-changer.”
The results arrive at a moment when the pandemic’s grip is tightening. The U.S. surpassed 11 million coronavirus cases Sunday as Florida reported the most new infections since July and new cases in California hit a three-month high. Deaths and hospitalizations are also rising. Europe has seen cases soar, as much of the world braces for what is expected to be a dire winter.
While the results are preliminary, both Moderna and Pfizer are expected to seek emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration if further study shows their vaccines are safe. In its statement, Moderna said it could seek a go-ahead from regulators in the weeks ahead.
“The results of this trial are truly striking,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on a conference call with reporters. The efficacy against severe disease “is really quite impressive.”
What Bloomberg Intelligence says
“Moderna’s vaccine mRNA-1273 showing an impressive 94.5% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 cases gives it an equal footing vs. Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine BNT162b2, in our view,” said Sam Fazeli, senior pharma analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Further, the less-rigorous distribution and shipping requirements provide mRNA-1273 an edge over its rival, though both will be used given the production constraints, while their long-term protection is still unknown.”
The company said it would expect an emergency authorization to be based on a final analysis of 151 cases, along with two months of safety follow-up data that U.S. regulators want to see. That final data is expected later this month.
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna received $955 million from the U.S. Operation Warp Speed program to develop its vaccine, and the U.S. has agreed to pay up to $1.53 billion to purchase the shots. Pfizer has said it didn’t receive any federal funding to develop its vaccine, though it has a supply agreement with the U.S. worth nearly $2 billion.
Moderna expects to manufacture 20 million doses of its vaccine by year-end, enough to vaccinate 10 million people. This initial batch will be distributed in the U.S.
Government officials today said on the conference call they also expect to have at least 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, sufficient for another 10 million recipients in the two-dose sequence, available in the U.S. by year-end. Pfizer has said it expects to produce as many as 50 million doses of its vaccine by the end of 2020.
Once a vaccine is cleared, distribution is expected to be a significant challenge. Handling some of the shots that are being studied is complicated. For example, Pfizer’s must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures until a few days before it is used, a requirement that adds logistical hurdles for states that will be in charge of overseeing the inoculation efforts.
Moderna said on Monday that new data showed its vaccine is stable at refrigerator temperatures for 30 days, much longer than the previous estimate of seven days. For longer-term storage, it can be kept in freezers, though it doesn’t need the special facilities required for the Pfizer vaccine.
“Every pharmacy, doctor’s office, hospital” has the capability to store a vaccine in a regular refrigerator, Bancel said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. The vaccine’s stability at such temperatures will have “a huge impact” in the ability to distribute it widely.
Both Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines are based on mRNA technology designed to transform the body’s own cells into vaccine-making factories. Once injected, the vaccines instruct cells to make copies of the coronavirus’s spike protein, stimulating the creation of protective antibodies.
The analysis of Moderna’s data found no significant safety concerns, the company said. It said some participants had severe fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain and headaches after getting the vaccine, though the side effects were generally short-lived.
Bancel said the data safety monitoring board met Sunday. The CEO said he anxiously checked his email every 5 minutes until he heard in the early afternoon they had results, when he got on a video call to hear them.
The result “is a big milestone” for messenger RNA technology, Bancel said. “It shows that mRNA can be a drug.”
In vaccine trials, a certain number of volunteers – a percentage of whom get a placebo – have to get infected to determine if the vaccine works. That’s easier to accomplish with the pandemic in the U.S. surging. The country has recorded more than 100,000 new infections every day since Nov. 5, according to Johns Hopkins University data compiled by Bloomberg.
The same explosion of COVID-19 cases that helped Pfizer get results for its vaccine trial on Nov. 9 helped speed along Moderna’s trial. Moderna on Nov. 11 said its study had accumulated more than 53 infections, allowing a preliminary analysis to begin.
Infections were accumulating so fast in the trial that Moderna’s analysis ended up being based on 95 cases, the company said.
Bancel said at the rate cases are piling up, Moderna should get the final 151 cases by the end of the month, allowing it to complete a final analysis and file for emergency use authorization.
Moderna’s final-stage trial started in late July on the same day as Pfizer’s. The company was slightly behind Pfizer largely due to structural differences in the studies. The two doses of Moderna’s vaccine are given four weeks apart; Pfizer’s two doses are given over three weeks.
With assistance from Blaise Robinson, Dave Merrill and Jan-Patrick Barnert.