The first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in people appears to be safe and able to stimulate an immune response against the infection, the manufacturer, Moderna, announced Monday, offering a glint of hope to a world desperate for ways to stop the pandemic.
The preliminary findings, in the first eight people who each received two doses of the experimental vaccine, must now be repeated in far larger tests in hundreds and then thousands of people, to find out if the vaccine can work in the real world. Moderna’s technology, involving genetic material from the virus called mRNA, is relatively new and has yet to produce any approved vaccine.
The promising early news sent Moderna’s stock soaring by more than 25% on Monday afternoon and helped drive Wall Street to its best day in six weeks. Stocks were also lifted by statements from the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, that the central bank would continue to support the economy and markets.
Trading Monday had all of the characteristics of a rally focused on prospects for a return to normal: The S&P 500 rose more than 3%; stock benchmarks in Europe were 4-6% higher; and oil prices also jumped. Among the best performers in the S&P 500 were travel-related companies, like United Airlines, Expedia Group and Marriott International.
With the weather warming and state after state starting to lift lockdown restrictions, Americans are eager to regain their freedom to shop, go to the beach and enjoy bars and restaurants. Still, more than 1,000 people died most days last week in the United States.
Vaccines are now seen as the best and perhaps only hope of stopping or even slowing a disease that has sickened nearly 5 million people worldwide, killed 315,000 and locked down entire countries, paralyzing their economies.
Dozens of companies and universities are rushing to create coronavirus vaccines, and human trials have already started for several manufacturers, including Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, the Chinese company CanSino and the University of Oxford, which is working with AstraZeneca.
Experts agree that it is essential to develop multiple vaccines, because the urgent global need for billions of doses will far outstrip the production capacity of any one manufacturer. But there is widespread concern among scientists that haste could compromise safety, resulting in a vaccine that does not work or even harms patients.
The potential strength of Moderna’s mRNA approach to vaccine making is that it uses a genetic framework that can be quickly adapted for each new viral threat. The company has said that it is proceeding on an accelerated timetable, with a second phase of tests involving 600 people to begin soon, and a third phase to begin in July involving thousands of healthy people. The Food and Drug Administration gave Moderna the go-ahead this month for the second phase.
If those trials go well, some doses of a vaccine could become available for widespread use by the end of this year or early 2021, Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. “We’re doing our best to make it as many millions as possible.”
President Donald Trump said last week that a vaccine would be available before the end of this year. His prediction was supported by Moncef Slaoui, the newly appointed leader of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s effort to speed vaccine development. At a briefing last week, Slaoui, a former member of Moderna’s board of directors who resigned when he took up his new government post, said he had seen preliminary research data that convinced him that a vaccine could be created by the end of the year. He did not identify the data.
Also Monday, Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that Slauoi would divest his Moderna stock options, valued at about $10 million, on Tuesday morning. Oakley added that Slauoi would donate to cancer research the increased value his shares had accrued from last Thursday until Tuesday’s sale. The share price closed at $80 on Monday, up from $64.56 last Thursday, adding $2.4 million to the value of his options.
At a round table with restaurant executives at the White House on Monday, Trump said, “This was a very big day, cure wise and vaccine wise,” and noted that the markets were lifted by drug news.
Moderna produced the vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the institute that is headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci and has been leading the clinical trials. Part of the National Institutes of Health, the agency is involved in research on other experimental coronavirus vaccines. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have each received roughly half a billion dollars from the U.S. government, to speed development of a vaccine.
The people vaccinated in Moderna’s Phase 1 study described Monday were healthy volunteers ages 18-55. Their immune systems made antibodies that were then tested in infected cells in the lab, and were able to stop the virus from replicating — the key requirement for an effective vaccine. The levels of those so-called neutralizing antibodies matched or exceeded the levels found in patients who had recovered after contracting the virus in the community.
Dr. Mark J. Mulligan, director of the NYU Langone Vaccine Center, called the Moderna findings “very encouraging.” He added, “It’s a small number of participants, but it appears to be a really good start.” Mulligan was not involved in the early testing but expected to participate in a later phase of the Moderna vaccine research.
Moderna’s early stage of testing, Phase 1, is continuing, Two more age groups — 55-70 and 71 and over — are now being enrolled to test the vaccine. The company did not mention plans to include children in its studies and did not respond to an inquiry about it in time for publication. But Mulligan said that tests in children were often delayed until a vaccine was shown to be safe in young adults.
The actual data from the preliminary tests has not been published or shared publicly, but has been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, which does not comment on trials still in progress. The company said it hoped to make data publicly available this summer.
Two shots, four weeks apart, are likely to be needed, meaning that however many doses are produced, only half that number of people can be vaccinated.
Moderna said that additional tests in mice that were vaccinated and then infected found that the vaccine could prevent the virus from replicating in their lungs, and that the animals had levels of neutralizing antibodies comparable to those in the people who had received the vaccine.
Three doses of the vaccine were tested: low, medium and high. These initial results are based on tests of the low and medium doses. The only adverse effects at those doses were redness and soreness in one patient’s arm where the shot was given.
But at the highest dose, three patients had fever, muscle pains and headaches, Zaks said, adding that the symptoms went away after a day.
But the high dose is being eliminated from future studies, not so much because of the side effects, but because the lower doses appear to work so well that the high dose is not needed.
“The lower the dose, the more vaccine we’ll be able to make,” Zaks said.
He added, “Demand is going to far outstrip supply, so I think there is an ethical obligation to go with the lowest dose you can so you can make as much vaccine as possible.”
The company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a vaccine-making facility nearby in Norwood, and recently announced a 10-year collaboration with Swiss contract drugmaker Lonza to manufacture up to 1 billion doses a year for worldwide distribution, if the vaccine proves successful. Zaks said Moderna was also working with other vaccine makers in the United States to scale up production.
Moderna uses genetic material — messenger RNA — to make vaccines, and the company has nine others in various stages of development, including several for viruses that cause respiratory illnesses. But no vaccine made with this technology has yet reached the market.
Work on the new coronavirus started in January, as soon as Chinese scientists posted its genetic sequence on the internet. Researchers at Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases identified part of the sequence that codes for a spikelike protein on the surface of the virus that attaches to human cells, helping the virus to invade them.
The idea behind Moderna’s vaccine is to inject the mRNA for part of the spike protein and have it slip into the cells of a healthy person, which then follow its instruction and crank out the viral protein. That protein should act as a red flag for the immune system, stimulating it to produce antibodies that will prevent infection by blocking the action of the spike if the person is exposed to the virus.
“The new technologies for genetic immunization are rapid and produce a product that is highly potent at producing immune responses,” Mulligan said. “Today’s RNA results confirm that there is great potential.”