The race to find a COVID-19 vaccine is heating up. Anthony Okolie speaks with Tariq Aeta, Healthcare Analyst, TD Asset Management, about the positive early results from the Moderna coronavirus vaccine trial.
In a few minutes, I'll be speaking with Tariq Aeta, health care analyst with TD Asset Management, about the latest COVID-19 vaccine trials. But first, a quick wrap of today's headlines.
Some promising signs in the fight against COVID-19. US biotech company Moderna says early results from an experimental vaccine have shown promise and caused the Dow to rally yesterday more than 900 points.
The 94-year-old Canadian retailer Reitmans filed for creditor protection as the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to close all of its stores since March 17.
Meanwhile, big-box retailer Walmart said e-commerce sales in the US shot up 74% as consumers stocked up on groceries, cleaning items, and other stay-at-home essentials during the coronavirus outbreak.
More potential aid for EU countries could be on its way. Germany and France have proposed a $545 billion coronavirus fund to help Europe's hardest-hit countries.
Finally, the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Britain leaped in April to its highest level in nearly 24 years as the economic fallout from the carnivorous pandemic deepens.
And that's a wrap of today's headlines. Next, my conversation with Tariq Aeta.
Tariq, drug maker Moderna recently showed some promising results from its vaccine trial. What did the early results show?
- So yesterday, Moderna released their phase I clinical trial for their COVID-19 vaccine, and this trial started back in March with 45 patients getting the vaccine. And with phase I clinical trials, there are basically two things we're looking for. So first and foremost, the most important consideration in a phase I trial is to insure the vaccine is safe and tolerable. And this is because with vaccines, the absolute last thing we want to do is put any patients in harm's way because here we're inoculating perfectly healthy individuals. And the good news here is the vaccine performed very well with no major adverse events recorded on the vaccine.
The second thing we're looking for in a phase I trial is to get the first inklings of how effective the vaccine can potentially be, and here we got good news as well. So be it the low, medium, and high dose, on all three doses the vaccine was able to generate an immune response in individuals that got vaccinated.
So for instance, at the 25-microgram dose, the individuals that got the vaccine were generating binding antibodies roughly in line to what recovered COVID-19 patients are producing, and at the 100-microgram dose, patients were actually producing even more antibodies than what your typical COVID-19 patient is producing. So all in, despite it being a small sample size, the strong response across the board is very promising for the vaccine.
- I understand that Moderna's using a new sort of technology or approach to vaccine development. Can you tell us what it is and what are some of the benefits of this approach?
- So taking a step back, when it comes to development of vaccines, there are basically three main techniques that scientists use to make a vaccine. So the first is an inactivated viral vaccine. So this is basically the process we use to make the annual flu shot where we grow the virus before disabling them so they can't cause harm.
The second technique is a recombinant vaccine, and this is where we genetically engineer other viruses to create a COVID-19 vaccine, and this is basically the approach most companies are following. So J&J, Sanofi, [? JSK, ?] they're all looking at doing recombinant vaccines.
And last but not least, the newest kid on the block are mRNA vaccines, and this is basically what Moderna is trying to do. And, in fact, the technology is so new that we actually don't even have an mRNA vaccine on the market today. So this would actually be the first mRNA vaccine ever approved if it was successful.
And the way it works is that instead of delivering the antigen to your body in a traditional vaccine, here we're basically delivering to the body the instruction manual so that your body can produce antibodies to the virus.
So we deliver those instruction manual basically in a lipid nanoparticle. So this is basically a bubble of fat. Inside this bubble of fat, we put the mRNA code. The immune system reads that code. The immune system then understands what the viral antigen looks like, and then cascades a series of events that allows your body to produce the antibodies.
And the beauty of this approach is that unlike a traditional vaccine, you don't need to grow any viruses in a lab, so you can develop this vaccine much more quickly. And importantly, you can also scale this vaccine quickly as well.
- So where do we go from here? What are the next steps?
- So for Moderna, the next step is to begin their phase II clinical trial. And they've gotten approval to fast track the phase II trial with the FDA, and that trial is set to begin any day now. And unlike a phase I trial where we're mainly testing for safety, with a phase II trial, here we're trying to get a better sense of effectiveness as well as tweak what the ultimate dose should be for a phase III trial.
So Moderna for their phase II trial is enrolling 600 patients versus just 45 patients in phase I, and importantly, half of those patients now will be over 55 years of age versus younger adults in phase I.
And this is important because older individuals tend not produce as strong of an immune response to vaccines versus young adults. So if Moderna is able to generate similar immune response in older adults as they did in the phase I trial, and at the same time if we don't get any adverse events on the safety side, this would actually bode very well for the vaccine and ultimate approval down the road.
- So, Tariq, if all goes as planned, when can we expect a vaccine to be released?
- So historically in the world of pharma, it's always dangerous to declare victory too early. 90% of drugs fail clinical trials. 70% of vaccines also fail trials.
That said, the phase I data from Moderna suggest that the odds here are above average. So a vaccine approval by the end of the fall is actually very much in the cards at the moment.
It's important to remember, though, that even if Moderna is successful in getting approval, it takes time for them to scale the vaccine and production. So as such, initial doses will likely be reserved for front-line health-care workers as well as higher-risk individuals.
But as we roll into 2021, Moderna expects that they can produce 1 billion vaccines annually on an annual run rate. And if you combine that with J&J, which is also looking to target a billion vaccines, if you look at Pfizer and BioNTech that are also looking to produce hundreds of millions of doses, combined we can actually have potentially billions of doses by the end of next year.
So at this point, I think it's not a matter of if we defeat COVID-19. It's really just a matter of when we defeat COVID-19. And if mRNA is successful, that timeline can move forward a few more months, and that will be a great victory.
- Tariq, thank you very much for your time.
- Thanks, Anthony.