Forget taking two to three Covid shots a year. Moderna hopes to roll out a single-dose annual booster to cover the coronavirus, the flu and another common respiratory virus within the next five years.
As Covid-19 continues to mutate, Moderna will need to keep updating the vaccines that turned it into a global household name while trying to make it more convenient for consumers, CEO Stéphane Bancel said in an interview with CNN Business Wednesday.
He estimated a timeline of “three to five years” for the new combined product, and likened the development of the life-saving jab to that of a smartphone.
“You don’t get the amazing camera, amazing everything the first time you get an iPhone, but you get a lot of things,” he said.
“A lot of us buy a new iPhone every September, and you get new apps and you get refreshed apps. And that’s exactly the same idea, which is you’ll get Covid and flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] in your single dose.”
Having recorded breakneck growth during the pandemic, Moderna (MRNA) is now under pressure to identify its next big frontier.
Bancel believes the Covid-19 pandemic that helped the company rack up tens of billions of dollars in revenue and generate business in more than 70 markets globally could end as soon as this year.
That doesn’t mean the virus is going anywhere, he noted.
“I think we are slowly moving — if not already in some countries — to a world where all the tools are available, and everybody can make their own decision based on their risk tolerance,” he explained, adding that he believed more people would choose to “live with the virus,” much like they do with the flu.
The approach, however, will continue to vary greatly, such as among people who are immunocompromised or in countries like Japan, where it was common to wear masks even before the pandemic, he acknowledged.
And “there’s always a 20% probability that we get a very nasty variant that drives very severe disease that has a lot of mutation,” he added.
The next big thing
Still, Moderna is determined not to become a one-hit wonder.
The company has more than 40 products in development, and is planning for life well beyond Covid-19, said Bancel.
In addition to an updated annual booster, it is continuing to develop a personalized cancer vaccine, for which new clinical data will drop later this year. Bancel said the product could go up for approval in roughly two years if all goes well.
The company is also exploring a potential monkeypox jab, which is “still in the lab today,” Bancel said. The World Health Organization declared the global outbreak of the illness a public health emergency of international concern last month.
And Moderna is looking to catch up to competitors overseas.
Earlier this year, it announced a push into 10 Asian and European markets, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Denmark and the Netherlands. The investments will cost “dozens of millions of dollars” and include hundreds of new hires, said Bancel.
He sees that as just one wave of expansion that will eventually take Moderna from directly operating in 12 countries this year to “40 to 60 countries” over the next three years.
The company also recently signed manufacturing agreements in the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia, and is hoping to set up one or two more plants in Southeast Asia or North Asia.
Bancel said the new facilities would be crucial to helping adapt its products to different strains of illnesses that develop around the world.
As the world first dealt with the onset of Covid-19, Moderna was one of the handful of large manufacturers that rushed to get their vaccines ready, reducing timelines from years to months. Its stock rallied 434% in 2020 and 143% last year.
But now, like peers Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech (BNTX), the firm’s stock has slumped, dropping more than 30% so far this year and 64% from its all-time high a year ago.
Last week, the company revealed that it took a writedown of nearly $500 million in the second quarter, partly because of a sudden cancellation of orders from Covax, the international vaccination program for lower-income countries.
The reversal led to huge losses for the company, which had bought new machines to fulfill those orders, and more importantly, resulted in Covid vaccines being thrown in the trash, said Bancel.
“We ended up destroying the vaccines,” he said. “It was really heartbreaking.”
The CEO said he wasn’t worried about that kind of slide in demand being repeated in richer countries, in part because governments had already shown commitments to use vaccines later this year to avoid reintroducing economic lockdowns.
But “on the low-income country side, yes, I am worried,” he said.