For the second time this month, there’s promising news from a COVID-19 vaccine candidate: Moderna said Monday its shots provide strong protection, offering a dash of hope against the grim backdrop of coronavirus surges in the US and around the world.
Moderna said its vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective, according to preliminary data from the company’s still ongoing study. A week ago, competitor Pfizer Inc. announced its own COVID-19 vaccine appeared similarly effective — news that puts both companies on track to seek permission within weeks for emergency use in the US.
Dr. Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president, welcomed the “really important milestone” but said having similar results from two different companies is what’s most reassuring.
“That should give us all hope that actually a vaccine is going to be able to stop this pandemic and hopefully get us back to our lives,” Hoge told The Associated Press.
“It won’t be Moderna alone that solves this problem. It’s going to require many vaccines” to meet the global demand, he added.
US President-elect Joe Biden tweeted that “today’s news of a second vaccine is further reason to feel hopeful,” but he cautioned that its widespread distribution was months away.
“Until then, Americans need to continue to practice social-distancing and mask-wearing to get the virus under control,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the development “really quite impressive” and told NBC’s “Today” that Moderna’s finding, along with Pfizer’s, “is something that foretells an impact on this outbreak.”
“So now we have two vaccines that are really quite effective, so I think this is a really strong step forward to where we want to be about getting control with this outbreak,” Fauci said. Asked about the timeline for vaccinating people, Fauci projected that by the end of December, there will be doses available for people at high risk from the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Moderna’s announcement is “excellent news for the State of Israel,” adding that his government’s goal was “to quickly bring as many vaccines from as many sources to as many citizens as possible.”
Israel’s Health Minister Yuli Edelstein welcomed the news in a statement and noted that his ministry had already closed in on a deal with Moderna earlier in the year.
“Moderna was the first vaccine company that the Health Ministry signed a deal with, already months ago,” he said. “The announcement by the company is excellent news for the Israeli people. The activities of the Health Ministry in recent months proves its effectiveness and success in locating, contracting and purchasing the leading vaccines on the market.”
“At the same time, there is still a long way to go and we must not be complacent,” Edelstein warned.
Netanyahu announced in June that Israel signed a deal with Moderna for a future coronavirus vaccine, without specifying the number of doses that would be supplied. Israel has paid a total of NIS 405 million ($120 million) to the US-based biotech firm, according to the Haaretz daily.
Last week, Israel also signed a deal with Pfizer for its vaccine.
A vaccine can’t come fast enough as the pandemic has now killed more than 1.3 million people worldwide.
However, if the Food and Drug Administration allows emergency use of Moderna’s or Pfizer’s candidates, there will be limited, rationed supplies before the end of the year. Both require people to get two shots, several weeks apart. Moderna expects to have about 20 million doses, earmarked for the US, by the end of 2020. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech expect to have about 50 million doses globally by year’s end.
Moderna’s vaccine, created with the National Institutes of Health, is being studied in 30,000 volunteers who received either the real vaccination or a dummy shot. On Sunday, an independent monitoring board broke the code to examine 95 infections that were recorded starting two weeks after volunteers’ second dose — and discovered all but five illnesses occurred in participants who got the placebo.
The study is continuing, and Moderna acknowledged the protection rate might change as more COVID-19 infections are detected and added to the calculations. Also, it’s too soon to know how long protection lasts. Both cautions apply to Pfizer’s vaccine as well.
But Moderna’s independent monitors reported some additional, promising tidbits: All 11 severe COVID-19 cases were among placebo recipients, and there were no significant safety concerns.
The main side effects were fatigue, muscle aches and injection-site pain after the vaccine’s second dose, at rates that Hoge characterized as more common than with flu shots but on par with others such as shingles vaccine.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company’s vaccine is among 11 candidates in late-stage testing around the world, four of them in huge studies in the US.
Both Moderna’s shots and the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate are so-called mRNA vaccines, a brand-new technology. They aren’t made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there’s no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.
The strong results were a surprise. Scientists have warned for months that any COVID-19 shot may be only as good as flu vaccines, which are about 50% effective.
Another steep challenge: distributing doses that must be kept very cold. Both the Moderna and Pfizer shots are frozen but at different temperatures. Moderna announced Monday that once thawed, its doses can last longer in a normal refrigerator than initially thought, up to 30 days. Pfizer’s shots require long-term storage at ultra-cold temperatures.