Drugmaker Moderna Inc. has shipped the first batch of its rapidly developed coronavirus vaccine to U.S. government researchers, who will launch the first human tests of whether the experimental shot could help suppress the epidemic originating in China.
Moderna on Monday sent vaccine vials from its Norwood, Mass., manufacturing plant to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., the company said. The institute expects by the end of April to start a clinical trial of about 20 to 25 healthy volunteers, testing whether two doses of the shot are safe and induce an immune response likely to protect against infection, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci said in an interview. Initial results could become available in July or August.
Moderna’s turnaround time in producing the first batch of the vaccine—co-designed with NIAID, after learning the new virus’s genetic sequence in January—is a stunningly fast response to an emerging outbreak.
If a trial starts as planned in April, it would be about three months from vaccine design to human testing. In comparison, after an outbreak of an older coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome, in China in 2002, it took about 20 months for NIAID to get a vaccine into the first stage of human testing, according to Dr. Fauci.
“Going into a Phase One trial within three months of getting the sequence is unquestionably the world indoor record. Nothing has ever gone that fast,” Dr. Fauci said.
Public-health authorities say advances in vaccine technology, aided by government and private investments, are shortening development timelines when outbreaks occur. In the past, researchers scrambled to develop vaccines in response to outbreaks such as SARS, Ebola and Zika with mixed results. Older types of vaccines are developed from viral proteins that must be grown in eggs or cell cultures, and together with animal testing it can take years before a vaccine can be used in humans.
Newer approaches rely on what are known as platform technologies—building blocks that can be tweaked quickly with the genetic information from a newly emerged pathogen.
The fast production of a vaccine and plans to test it soon don’t guarantee its success. “You’re never sure until you’re at the end what you have,” said Bruce Gellin, president of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Saying there are other coronavirus vaccines in the works, he added: “The sequence of testing is designed to sort out what works from what doesn’t. That’s why it’s important to try as many things as possible that seem feasible, because not all horses will finish the race.”
It is uncertain whether Moderna’s vaccine will work because its gene-based technology hasn’t yet yielded an approved human vaccine. And even if the first study is positive, the coronavirus vaccine might not become widely available until next year because further studies and regulatory clearances will be needed, Dr. Fauci said.
But health authorities say it is worth placing bets on these new technologies in the face of fast-moving outbreaks. Since early January, when only a few dozen cases were confirmed in central China, the virus has spread to more than 79,000 people, including more than 2,600 who have died. The vast majority of the cases are in China, according to the World Health Organization.
Dr. Fauci said it is possible the spread of coronavirus could lessen during warmer months, but then return next winter and become a seasonal virus like the flu, making a vaccine useful even if it isn’t ready for widespread distribution until next year.
“The only way you can completely suppress an emerging infectious disease is with a vaccine,” Dr. Fauci said in his office in Bethesda. “If you want to really get it quickly, you’re using technologies that are not as time-honored as the standard, what I call antiquated, way of doing it.”
Moderna, which has more than 800 employees, was founded in 2010 to develop drugs and vaccines based on what is known as messenger RNA, the genetic molecules that carry instructions from DNA to the body’s cells to make certain proteins. The company is targeting cancer, heart disease and infectious diseases. It hasn’t brought any drugs or vaccines to market.
Moderna Chief Executive Stephane Bancel said he got in touch with NIAID after hearing about the new China virus while vacationing with his family in France in early January, to discuss collaborating on a vaccine.
Chinese scientists found the genetic sequence of the new virus and published it online around Jan. 10. Researchers at NIAID and Moderna analyzed the sequence and homed in on a section they believed was most likely to induce the desired immune response if incorporated into a vaccine. NIAID agreed to run a clinical trial if Moderna could supply a vaccine.
Moderna didn’t need actual samples of the virus or its proteins. The company’s vaccines instead contain nucleic acids with genetic codes that instruct the body’s own cells to make certain proteins from the virus that don’t infect a person, but trigger an immune response.
Moderna in 2018 opened a manufacturing site in the shell of a former Polaroid plant in Norwood, near the company’s Cambridge, Mass., headquarters. In the plant, employees wearing white lab gowns, hair nets and safety goggles work amid lab hoods, robotic machinery and steel tanks to produce drugs and vaccines for clinical trials. Meeting rooms are named after famous scientists such as Curie and Pasteur.
To make the coronavirus vaccine, Moderna repurposed some of the robotic equipment that was making cancer vaccines tailored to the genetic mutations of patients’ tumors.
As many as 100 manufacturing and quality-control employees were involved in the effort, many working nights and weekends. As manufacturing ramped up, the company’s leaders had frequent meetings, calls and WhatsApp messaging chains to monitor progress, and stayed in close contact with NIAID.
After Moderna’s effort became public in January, friends and family members became interested.
Juan Andres, Moderna’s head of technical operations, said, “I wasn’t used to my kid thinking I did anything cool,” but his 15-year-old son began asking questions about the project at dinner.
Moderna finished manufacturing about 500 vials on Feb. 7, a Friday. Normally, the company would have waited until Monday to start quality-control tests, but about 10 to 15 workers spent the weekend testing samples for potency and other features. The batch cleared most tests that weekend, but it took about two weeks to complete sterility testing. Moderna stored the supply in freezers set to minus-70 degrees Celsius.
One risk of moving so fast is that Moderna and NIAID won’t know for sure they picked the best fragment of the virus’s genetic sequence to target until the human study is completed.
“It is possible it’s going to work, but we have to wait and see,” said Mr. Bancel, Moderna’s CEO.
The first trial will be conducted at NIAID’s clinical-trials unit in Bethesda. If the first one is successful, a second trial of hundreds or thousands of participants could begin, which could take six to eight months, Dr. Fauci said. This trial could be conducted partly in the U.S. but also in China or a region where the virus is spreading, so the testing could gauge whether the vaccine reduces infection rates.
If the second trial is positive, the vaccine could be ready for widespread use, he said. How widely the virus has spread by then will determine whether it is given to targeted groups such as health-care workers, or more broadly to the general population, Dr. Fauci said.