Moderna Inc. plans to start human trials for vaccines against 15 threatening viruses and other pathogens by 2025, part of a strategy to develop shots that could be made quickly in response to a future pandemic.
The effort will include prototype vaccines against the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, a cousin of Covid-19; the Ebola and Marburg viruses; a tick-borne virus that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever; and mosquito-borne viruses such as chikungunya and dengue fever, according to a company statement Tuesday.
Moderna has come under criticism from vaccine advocates who say the company has been slow to ship doses of its Covid vaccine to poor countries and that patents it is pursuing in South Africa threaten access to shots. The company is rowing back, announcing an agreement Monday to open a vaccine plant in Kenya that will make as many as 500 million doses annually, although it didn’t specify which vaccines might be produced there.
“Since our beginning, we have focused on developing a global health vaccine program,” Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel said in the statement. “Today, we are renewing that focus by expanding our work to develop vaccines against priority pathogens that threaten global health.”
While developing a Covid vaccine was relatively straightforward, it still took Moderna six months to choose a dose and establish safety before beginning final-stage trials. Moderna has been focusing on ways to ensure the world is prepared for the next pandemic, Bancel said in an interview.
The new effort aims to complete preliminary dose and safety testing for vaccines against numerous threatening viruses preemptively. That way, if of these viruses or a close relative causes a major epidemic, Moderna will have a prototype vaccine on hand and might be able to begin large human efficacy trials very quickly, Bancel said.
Knowing the appropriate dose for a vaccine “is really important,” Bancel said in the interview. “We can save a lot of time” when a new virus emerges if vaccines have already been tested against closely-related viruses.
The program expands on Moderna’s ambitious efforts to develop shots for a wide range of infectious diseases that could threaten global health. The company has already begun trials for vaccines against two of the priority pathogens, HIV and Zika virus. Development of a vaccine for Nipah, a deadly bat-borne virus that causes periodic outbreaks in Asia, is in the laboratory stage.
Other deadly diseases targeted by the program include two that aren’t caused by viruses, malaria and tuberculosis. Moderna said it was also starting a new program that would allow outside researchers to explore using Moderna’s technology against emerging or neglected diseases.
The effort might cost Moderna $300 million, Bancel said. While it looks for outside partners, the company will develop vaccines on its own for all 15 diseases, even if it finds no collaborators to help with the effort, according to the CEO.
Moderna also said it would never enforce its Covid-19 vaccine patents against manufacturers in 92 poor and lower-middle income countries, according to the statement, provided the vaccines are produced solely for use in those nations.
In 2020, Moderna pledged not to enforce its Covid-19 patents during the pandemic. With the omicron wave receding in many parts of the world, that’s raised the possibility that the worst of the pandemic may be over.