Forget getting two to three Covid vaccines a year. Moderna hopes to roll out an annual single-dose booster to cover the coronavirus, influenza and another common respiratory virus within the next five years.
As Covid-19 continues to change, Moderna will need to keep updating the vaccines that turned it into a global name while trying to make it more convenient for consumers, CEO Stéphane Bancel said in an interview with CNN Business on Wednesday.
He estimated a timeline of “three to five years” for the new combined product, and compared the development of the life-saving opening to that of a smartphone.
“You don’t get the amazing camera, all the amazing stuff the first time you get an iPhone, but you get a lot of stuff,” he said.
“Many 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 that you’re going to get Covid, flu, and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] in your single dose.”
Posting terrific 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 amass tens of billions of dollars in revenue and generate business in more than 70 markets around the world could end as soon 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 places — 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 believed more people would choose. to “live with the virus”, as they do with the flu.
The approach, however, will continue to vary widely, such as among immunocompromised people 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 bad variant that drives very severe disease that has a lot of mutations,” he added.
However, Moderna is determined not to become a one-hit wonder.
The company has more than 40 products in development and is planning for life beyond Covid-19, Bancel said.
In addition to an updated annual booster, it is continuing to develop a personalized cancer vaccine, for which new clinical data is due later this year. Bancel said the product could go for approval in roughly two years if all goes well.
The company is also exploring a possible monkeypox shot, which is “still in the lab today,” Bancel said. The World Health Organization declared the global outbreak of the disease a public health emergency of international concern last month.
And Moderna is looking to catch up with overseas competitors.
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 “tens of millions of dollars” and include hundreds of new jobs, Bancel said.
He sees this as just one wave of expansion that will eventually take Moderna from operating directly in 12 locations this year to “40 to 60 locations” over the next three years.
The company also recently signed manufacturing deals in the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia, and hopes to set up one or two more factories in Southeast Asia or North Asia.
Bancel said the new facilities would be crucial in helping to adapt its products to the different types of diseases developing around the world.
As the world first grappled with the onset of Covid-19, Moderna was one of the few big manufacturers that rushed to get their vaccines ready, cutting timelines from years to months. Its shares rose 434% in 2020 and 143% last year.
But now, like peers Pfizer ( PFE ) and BioNTech ( BNTX ), the firm’s stock has slumped, down more than 30% so far this year and 64% from its all-time high a year ago seen.
Last week, the company disclosed that it took a write-off of nearly $500 million in the second quarter, due in part to an unexpected 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 machinery to fulfill those orders, and more importantly, resulted in Covid vaccines being thrown into the bin, Bancel said.
“We ended up destroying vaccines,” he said. “It was really heartbreaking.”
The CEO said he was not worried about the kind of demand slippage that would be repeated in richer countries, in part because governments had already shown commitments to use the vaccines later this year to avoid a resumption of economic lockdowns.
But “on the low-income country side, yes, I’m concerned,” he said.