Moderna's Tal Zaks to 'Post': Coronavirus vaccine is personal

Moderna’s chief medical officer said he hopes that by spring the world will be in a much better place.

Tal Zaks (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tal Zaks
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, has high hopes for the development of a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus - despite his company never completing production of a similar vaccine.
Moderna’s mRNA-1273 uses the mRNA (messenger RNA) delivery platform to encode for an S-2P immunogen. The investigational vaccine directs the body’s cells to express the spike protein to elicit a broad immune response.
A Phase 1 clinical trial found the candidate vaccine to be safe, generally well-tolerated and able to induce antibodies with high levels of virus-neutralizing activity. Moderna initiated Phase 2 testing of the vaccine in May, with similar results.
Zak's named No. 2 on The Jerusalem Post's 50 Most Influential Jews list. See full list >>
The Phase 3 trial that started recently is ultimately meant to enroll 30,000 adult volunteers.
“We have not been able to develop an mRNA vaccine yet,” Zaks admitted. “This is a relatively novel technology. We have been at it for about five years and we have consistently been able to show at least in early studies that this technology is able to generate neutralizing antibodies.
“As it relates to the coronaviruses, I think there have only been a few attempts in the past and they were against MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] and SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], and when those viruses went away, it became difficult to develop vaccines against them.” One of the paradoxes of vaccine development is that in order to show that a vaccine works, there has to be ongoing infection.
“If nobody is getting infected, you never know that a vaccine works,” he explained. “So that has stymied the development of previous coronavirus vaccines.”
With COVID-19, Zaks expects that the situation will be different.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic with significant ongoing transmission, and so as we launch pivotal trials during this period we anticipate that the infection rates will be such that we will see cases, and that will enable us to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of these vaccines,” he said.
“WITH ENOUGH vaccines – and not just ours but others – there will be enough supply to immunize a significant amount of the population that indeed we will be able to get back to normal,” Zaks said. “I think we should put an end to this pandemic as we now experience it and get back to life as quickly as possible.” But he admitted that it is likely that in the beginning there will be more demand than supply.
“I am worried about this coming winter, but I think by next spring or summer we should all be in a much better place,” he said.
When asked if he thought the Moderna vaccine would work long-term, Zaks said it is possible the virus will change and that one day the world might even have SARS-CoV-3, another iteration of the current pandemic. But he explained that when that happens, if Moderna’s vaccine technology is already proven to prevent the disease, it will be “relatively straightforward” to update the vaccine.
“We won’t need to go through all the clinical testing again, and we will have established a manufacturing capacity, so next time we need to generate a new vaccine, because it is all digital based, we will figure out what the sequence is, put it into the platform, and out comes a novel vaccine. And that should be able to happen in a matter of weeks,” Zaks told the Post.
How extensive is the pressure?
“The pressure is coming from within,” Zaks said. “This vaccine is personal; we are all affected by it.”
He said his 80-year-old mother lives in Ra’anana, and he missed seeing her for Passover because of coronavirus.
“I want her to get vaccinated and the rest of us to get vaccinated so life can return to normal,” he said. “I take this responsibility deeply and personally.”