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[Interview] Moderna co-founder

Giving away patents not in line with capitalist society

Investors will pass over biotech in favor of tech if vaccine patents are donated, fears MIT prof Robert Langer

By Oct 12, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Robert Langer, co-founder of Moderna
Robert Langer, co-founder of Moderna

WASHINGTON D.C. -- US-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. wasn’t a household name until the beginning of last year, when its fate changed with its development of a COVID-19 vaccine, propelling the company to a spot on the S&P 500 list

The secret behind the then-small startup Moderna's rise to equal footing with the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer Inc., can be found in technology and people, according to Robert Langer, Moderna co-founder and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a video interview with The Korea Economic Daily on Oct. 8.

In 2010, Professor Langer established Moderna with Timothy Springer, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Noubar Afeyan, an MIT graduate and entrepreneur.

Unlike traditional bio companies that concentrate on research and development, Moderna was a completely different type of bio firm that created the COVID-19 vaccine by collecting and analyzing data, according to Marco Iansiti, a professor at Harvard Business School.

“Moderna may be a small company, but it has many talented researchers, which is how we were able to develop the vaccine quickly,” said Langer, explaining that the data-driven development of the nanotechnology to carry messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, proved to be effective.

On Oct. 1, Moderna’s share price plummeted following the announcement that global pharmaceutical company US-based Merck & Co., also known as MSD, has developed an oral medication to treat COVID-19, raising concerns that this may lead to a drastic decline in demand for the COVID-19 vaccine.

But Langer rejected such worries noting that there would still be enormous demand for the vaccines as they are 95% effective. He added that COVID-19 drug treatment and masks are also necessary as some people are refusing to get vaccinated.

Overall, there's a need to create a balance and synergy between vaccines, medication and masks to overcome the global pandemic instead of tilting to one extreme, according to Langer.

The following is an abridged Q&A script of Langer's interview with The Korea Economic Daily. 

▲ MSD has now developed oral COVID-19 treatment, how will this affect vaccines?

“The first line of defense is certainly vaccines. You want to make sure people don’t get COVID in the first place so vaccines are clearly the most important thing and data shows that. Vaccines are 95% effective, meaning that we won’t see reduced demand even if there are treatments. But if somebody doesn’t take the vaccine then you want to have other lines of defense, in which case drugs and masks are important.”

▲ Do you believe that people can avoid COVID-19 as long as they are properly vaccinated?

“I got the booster shot. And while it’s too early to say if you need to get vaccinated two or three times a year, my guess is that you probably would need new boosters since there’s bound to be some waning of the antibody and immune cells over time and it’s possible that there’ll be other variants as well. Many people worry about side effects, but there are actually very, very few with the mRNA vaccines based on everything I’ve watched and everything that’s been published in medical literature.

"I’m hoping that vaccines will help us win the battle against COVID-19.”

“So far, things look positive but it’s not over yet and we need to remain vigilant because we still haven't won the war, but I hope that we return to normal and I believe that we will at some point. But I think vaccines are going to be key.”

▲ Can vaccines alone guarantee a future without COVID-19?

“It’s important to see the synergy that vaccines have with the treatment drugs. Some people say that the COVID will come to an end by 2025 or 2026, but it’s hard to predict. One thing for sure is that we will need to get COVID-19 vaccine shots every year just like flu shots. On a purely theoretical basis, mix and matching vaccines is probably okay but there’s a need to see more data.”

▲ There has been some talk about waiving IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines for everyone’s future, what are your thoughts on the matter?

“Providing sufficient supply of vaccines is most important, but just giving the patents away will not change manufacturing. In fact, there could be several downsides to just giving the patents away and assuming that anybody can make things. To begin with, one of the issues can go back to manufacturing. For example, Johnson & Johnson vaccines were produced by Emergent BioSolutions and unfortunately, a lot of the vaccines were contaminated. Fortunately, the United States Food and Drug Administration was there and shut down the operation, but if you didn't have an experienced organization like the FDA, those vaccines would have gone out and killed people or certainly caused harm.”

▲ You also said that disclosing the patents isn’t in line with the capitalist society?

“In a capitalist society, investors are supposed to make money. They can invest in Moderna or Facebook but if you start giving patents away, no one will invest in Moderna because it costs billions of dollars to create a new drug or a new vaccine. If anyone can make the vaccines, investors will feel like they’re losing money if they invest in Moderna and instead will just keep investing in Facebook.”

▲ Samsung Biologics has begun producing Moderna vaccines. Do you think it’ll be able to manufacture its own vaccines?

"Samsung is a great company, but manufacturing messenger RNA vaccines are nontrivial -- it requires not only the messenger RNA but also creating the lipid nanoparticles, incorporating them and doing a lot of quality control. It takes time to go up the learning curve no matter how good a company is.

▲ In addition to Moderna, other major vaccine makers have partnered with Korean companies to manufacture their vaccines. What makes Korean companies attractive?

"Korea has great companies and really smart people. I've had lots of Koreans training in my laboratory and they've been excellent. They train and go back to be professors in Korea or work in Korean companies. Korean scientists are doing a lot of really innovative work, developing new ways to treat cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer's disease."

▲ What are Moderna's future plans, including new businesses?

"We're working on new treatments for heart diseases, personalized cancer vaccines as well as many different vaccines for different diseases such as infectious diseases. We're also preparing for more COVID vaccines and working on a lot of rare diseases -- the enzyme-based diseases. There's a whole arsenal of vaccines that Moderna is working on and it's on the website. The plan is to really use the messenger RNA to its fullest and develop therapies that can help many millions -- or maybe billions -- of people.

▲ What are Moderna's strengths?

"There are two strengths with the first being the mRNA vaccines. Moderna and Pfizer are the only two companies in the world that manufacture mRNA vaccines, which are 95% effective. Other vaccines are less effective. Secondly, the nanoparticles, because without them the mRNA would be destroyed and get into the cells. Moderna has really great technology, not only in creating mRNA but also in making the nanoparticles that can deliver the mRNA to patients.

Write to In-seol Jeong and Woo-sub Kim at surisuri@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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