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Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Awaits FDA Approval. What Is Known About The Drugmaker?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Most of us, me included, talk about Moderna like it's a company we're familiar with, a household name we've known for years. That's likely because people are excited for the company's coronavirus vaccine. It's one of two frontrunners currently under review at the Food and Drug Administration. Now, if the FDA authorizes Moderna's vaccine, it will be the first time Moderna ever launches a drug. The company so many of us talk about has never gotten FDA approval for any of its products. Pete Loftus has reported on the company and interviewed its CEO. He's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PETE LOFTUS: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: How long has Moderna been around? And can you talk about where it came from?

LOFTUS: Sure. Moderna's been around for about 10 years. Really, its roots were in some academic research into this gene-based technology that held promise for a whole new way of making drugs and vaccines to combat disease. And some venture capitalists saw this research and saw the potential for it and decided to form a company to further advance it so that they could get to the point where they might have drugs and vaccines for various diseases.

CORNISH: You've reported that the company's CEO, Stephane Bancel, has at times kind of struggled to run the company, that there's been high turnover. What's his story?

LOFTUS: He's a native of France, and he's gotten various degrees in engineering and eventually an MBA from Harvard and got into what you could describe as the life sciences business. And then through that, he basically got to know these venture capitalists who created the company Moderna, and they tapped him to be the CEO. In the early days, it was a very small company, and it was him leading the charge with a limited amount of investment funding and really trying to push his employees to advance the science behind it and to refine the manufacturing techniques to sort of exploit this gene-based technology.

CORNISH: I want to talk a little bit more about that technology because this is a type of vaccine that's never been approved by the FDA. It's a vaccine based on messenger RNA. Can you explain what that means?

LOFTUS: Well, messenger RNA is a naturally occurring substance. It's in our bodies. And so in this case, what Moderna is doing and also Pfizer and its partner that have a COVID-19 vaccine - they're creating synthetic mRNA, and they've engineered it so that it will accomplish certain things once it's injected into the human body. So, just for example, in the case of these COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA types - they contain genetic instructions that teach human cells how to make a certain protein that's found on the surface of the coronavirus. That sort of sets off a chain of events in the body's immune system to build up defenses against the coronavirus if a person were to later become exposed to the real virus.

CORNISH: It's one thing to have a breakthrough with this research, but the business of actually producing this vaccine, getting it out there - what's Moderna's capacity to do all that?

LOFTUS: Well, it's especially challenging for Moderna because they are a small company. I mean, before this year, they had, I think, 800 employees. Now they're up to about 1,200. So they did open their own manufacturing plant a couple years ago, and so that's where they've started to produce doses of this vaccine in preparation for authorization. But that plant alone was not enough to be able to really make enough doses to meet this global demand. And so they formed a partnership with various contractors, including a contract manufacturer that's based in Switzerland. They have been forecasting that, with this - with their own in-house capacity and with their partners, that they could make up to a billion doses of the vaccine next year.

CORNISH: Pete Loftus is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you for your time.

LOFTUS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.