Moderna, the small company that wants to solve the pandemic

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2010, biotech company Moderna has long been the darling of investors, but it was only with the pandemic that it was able to prove its new vaccine technology, turning its founders into billionaires.

After the announcement on Monday that its experimental vaccine against Covid-19 was 94.5% effective, a very high level and comparable to the measles vaccine, the course of action continued to take off. Since January, it has been multiplied by more than five.

His boss since 2011, the French Stéphane Bancel, became a billionaire in April, when very preliminary results from clinical trials were published. It now weighs $ 3 billion, thanks to its 9% stake in the company, according to Forbes.

Many investors had bet on “biotech” in the last decade, no doubt in part thanks to the sales talent of its managing director. In 2018, she broke the IPO record for a biotech.

The buzz was also real among scientists, convinced that the technology was promising. An array of researchers, including a Nobel Prize, made up its scientific council.

Two renowned professors and investors, Timothy Springer of Harvard and Robert Langer of MIT, each invested early in Moderna and are now reaping the rewards: both became billionaires this year, according to Forbes.

The company originally promised to add “a whole new class of drugs to the pharmaceutical arsenal in the fight against important diseases,” according to a co-founder in 2012.

However, to date, no product has yet obtained marketing authorization.

The name of Moderna is a combination of “modifier” and “RNA” (RNA, in French): the technology consists of inserting into our cells strands of genetic instructions in the form of RNA, in order to make them manufacture proteins. on command, according to the disease against which we want to fight.

The idea dates back to the 1990s but it was not until the 2000s that a major biological obstacle was overcome, making it possible to prevent the very fragile “intruder” messenger RNA from being destroyed by the organism.

“Warrior”

One of Moderna’s first ideas was to create personalized vaccines against cancers (projects still in development). But Moderna also quickly focused on viruses, which concern the majority of clinical trials currently underway: against Zika, the Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis), the respiratory syncytial virus (bronchiolitis, etc.), cytomegalovirus (which can pose a risk to the fetus), or just the flu.

The former boss of Stéphane Bancel when he was CEO of bioMérieux, Alain Mérieux, told Les Echos that he had a “warrior temperament”, a qualifier that the person does not deny … in the name of seeking treatments for patients.

“Was it intense as a workplace? Yes. Am I sorry? No,” he replied in 2016 to the Statnews site, which had published a survey on the harsh practices human resources in the start-up, attributed to the management style of Mr. Bancel.

With a thousand employees, half of them in its own factory in Massachusetts, Moderna does not have the means to produce enough vaccines for the planet. Helped by grants and a supply contract for the US government, it has therefore established partnerships with established pharmaceutical producers, which have factories in Europe and the United States: Lonza, Rovi, Catalent.

With his usual optimism, Stéphane Bancel continues to promise between 500 million and one billion doses in 2021. He hopes for a marketing authorization at the end of the year in the United States, first for the most at risk, and suggests permission later for children.

“They could be vaccinated next summer, to return to school in September 2021, and return to normal life,” he told Fox Business on Monday.

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