Oct. 29, 2020
By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL— Moderna Therapeutics’ COVID vaccine should be ready to begin widespread distribution by late winter or next spring, Dr. Tal Zaks, the company’s Chief Medical Officer, said on Oct. 7 in a videoconference hosted by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Zaks is hopeful that the vaccine will be available in early 2021 for those at high risk, such as front-line workers or the elderly.
“My sense is that by the start of the next school year, things will be back to normal,” Zaks said.
In August, the Canadian government signed a deal with Moderna for 20 million doses to be delivered in 2021. An option for an additional 36 million doses was appended to the agreement last month.
In late July, the Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company became the first in the United States to begin Phase 3 clinical trials of its vaccine candidate. Currently, 30,000 adults are enrolled in the late-stage investigation, conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health.
Zaks, an Israeli oncologist, earned his medical degree and a PhD at Ben-Gurion. Israel has placed orders for the Moderna vaccine, among other countries.
The company expects to produce between 500 million and a billion doses next year, he said, noting that two inoculations would be administered, with a booster shot about a month after the first one.
Zaks said this vaccine has been shown to produce even more antibodies in a person infected with the coronavirus. Some in the trial have experienced mild flu-like symptoms that last a day or two, he said, but no serious side effects have been recorded.
How long immunity will last is not known, he acknowledged, but it should be at least a few years.
New vaccines are developed each year for the seasonal flu because different strains arise, he explained. Mutations have occurred in COVID, but that will not diminish the Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness, he said.
Moderna is currently expanding its trials to ensure the vaccine’s efficacy among children, pregnant women and those who are immune-compromised.
Mark Mendelson, chief executive officer of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, said there were nearly 220 registrants for the Zoom webinar, an indication of the high level of interest in the subject – and the pride of the university’s supporters.
In response to questions, Zaks assured that no corners are being cut to rush the vaccine to market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is “working in lockstep” with Moderna, he said, and has been, in fact, “overly conservative by some measures.” The company published the success of its findings in the New England Journal of Medicine on Sept. 29.
He warned that demand for a vaccine will likely outstrip supply, and countries that are less rich may have trouble meeting their citizens’ needs, at least in the first year. It’s also unclear how the several billion doses he expects to be needed by the end of next year will be deployed around the world, he said.
The Moderna vaccine will cost between US $20-$37 per dose, depending on the volume of purchase, he said.
Asked what keeps him awake at night, Zaks replied, “Our ability to explain our science to a public that is highly fractured in how it gets its information, where venues are polarized. That worries me.
“We are on the cusp of one of the greatest achievements in modern medicine and we find ourselves getting the very strange response of either we are not moving fast enough or ‘I do not believe you.’”