Forget about taking two to three Covid vaccinations a year. Moderna hopes to roll out an annual, single-dose booster shot to cover coronavirus, the flu, and another common respiratory virus within the next five years.
As Covid-19 continues to mutate, Moderna must continue to update the vaccines that have made it a household name around the world while trying to make it more convenient for consumers, CEO Stéphane Bancel said in an interview with CNN Business on Wednesday.
He estimated the timeframe for the new combined product to be “three to five years,” comparing the development of the life-saving jab to that of a smartphone.
“You don’t get the amazing camera, all amazing when you first get an iPhone, but you get a lot of things,” he said.
“Many of us buy a new iPhone every September and you get new apps and updated apps. And that’s exactly the same idea, which is that you get Covid and flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] in your single dose.”
After breakneck growth during the pandemic, Moderna (MRNA) is now under pressure to identify its next big frontier.
Bancel believes the Covid-19 pandemic, which has helped the company generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue and generate business in more than 70 markets worldwide, could end as early as this year.
That doesn’t mean the virus is going anywhere, he noted.
“I think we’re slowly moving – if not already in some countries – to a world where all the tools are available and everyone can make their own decision based on their risk tolerance,” he explained, adding that he believes that more people would choose to “live with the virus” much like they do with the flu.
However, the approach will continue to be very different, for example in people with weakened immune systems or in countries like Japan, where wearing masks was common even before the pandemic, he acknowledged.
And “there’s always a 20% chance that we’ll get a very malignant variant that causes a very serious disease with many mutations,” he added.
Still, Moderna is determined not to be a one-hit wonder.
The company has more than 40 products in development and plans to live well beyond Covid-19, Bancel said.
In addition to an updated annual booster dose, it continues to develop a personalized cancer vaccine, for which new clinical data will be published later this year. Bancel said the product could be ready for approval in about two years if all goes well.
The company is also studying a potential monkeypox vaccine that “is still in the lab today,” Bancel said. The World Health Organization last month declared the global outbreak of the disease a public health emergency of international concern.
And Moderna is trying to catch up with overseas competitors.
Earlier this year, the company announced a push into 10 Asian and European markets, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Denmark and the Netherlands. The investments will cost “tens of millions of dollars” and include hundreds of new hires, Bancel said.
He sees this as just a wave of expansion that will take Moderna from direct operations in 12 countries this year to “40 to 60 countries” over the next three years.
The company also recently signed manufacturing agreements in the UK, South Korea and Australia and hopes to set up an additional plant or two in Southeast Asia or North Asia.
Bancel said the new facilities would be instrumental in adapting its products to various strains of disease developing around the world.
When the world first grappled with the Covid-19 outbreak, Moderna was one of the few major manufacturers to rush to get their vaccines ready, cutting timelines from years to months. The stock is up 434% in 2020 and 143% over the past year.
But now the company’s stock has plummeted along with peers Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech (BNTX), falling more than 30% and 64% so far this year from its all-time highs a year ago.
Last week, the company announced that it took a nearly $500 million write-down in the second quarter, in part due to a sudden cancellation of orders from Covax, the international immunization program for low-income countries.
The reversal resulted in huge losses for the company, which had bought new machinery to fill those orders and, more importantly, resulted in Covid vaccines being thrown in the trash, Bancel said.
“We ended up destroying the vaccines,” he said. “It was really heartbreaking.”
The CEO said he was not concerned that this type of demand drop would be repeated in richer countries, in part because governments had already made pledges to deploy vaccines later this year to avoid reinstating economic lockdowns.
But “in the low-income country, I worry,” he said.