Everything You Need To Know About Moderna

Mikael Haji
7 min readSep 18, 2020

If I were to tell you one year ago that classes would be taught online, millions would be out of work, and social distancing would become the new global reality — would you believe me? The COVID-19 pandemic has spread at an alarming speed, infecting millions and bringing economic activity to a near-standstill. There have been many unforeseen challenges caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, and the reality is — nothing will go back to normal until a vaccine is available.

Across the world, more than 100 COVID-19 vaccines are currently being developed. Nevertheless, there is only one company that is coming out on top and that is — Moderna. Before the pandemic, Moderna was known for its extremely successful IPO and multi-billion dollar valuation. However, now, Moderna is better recognized as developing one of the most promising vaccines for COVID-19 known as — the m.R.N.A. — 1273 vaccine.

What Do Vaccines Do For Us?

Now, before we go into more detail on Moderna’s efforts to create a vaccine, let’s begin with a quick overview of (a) how our immune system works, (b)what immune response is, (c)what a vaccine is, (d) how it works, (e) and what it has done for us already.

For those of you that don't know, your immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together in order to defend the body from harmful germs. When some form of bacteria, a virus, or other germs invade your body, they multiply and attack. This invasion can very well cause diseases that make you extremely sick. Therefore, your immune system is always on patrol. When it comes across an invading germ, it attacks it. This is called an immune response.

So, how does an immune response work?

  1. An immune response begins by communicating with your body so that it is aware that there is an infection.
  2. It then begins to release antibodies to fight the germ — you can think of these antibodies as soldiers that are made to fight off the infection by attacking, weakening, and destroying the germ.
  3. After a few days, your immune system is able to remember the germ. Therefore, if it were to invade again, your body would be able to recognize it and quickly send out the right antibodies so you never get the infection again.

Now that we understand how our immune system and immune responses work, let’s begin talking about what exactly a vaccine does. A vaccine is a simple, safe, and effective way of protecting people against harmful diseases before they come into contact with them. They stimulate your body’s immune system in order to produce antibodies and allow you to develop immunity to the disease.

For decades, the creation of vaccines has been truly life-changing — so much to the fact that according to the World Health Organization, every year vaccines have prevented 2–3 million deaths — Can you imagine?

Moderna’s Method

Whenever a virus infects a body, our immune system does anything in its power to recognize and respond appropriately. Traditional vaccines take advantage of that response by injecting inactive viruses into our bodies in order to trigger an immune reaction. These vaccines can take a lot of time to develop, mainly due to the fact that scientists must deactivate an entire germ.

Therefore, on the other hand, with the rise of SARS-CoV-2, Moderna takes a novel approach that has never been licenced for humans.

Moderna’s pursuit of a vaccine began when the coronavirus was sequenced and its genetic information was uploaded to a public database. After this event, many scientists at Moderna and NIH were able to identify the sequence for a key protein on the surface of the virus called the spike protein. To the scientists, the spike protein seemed like an extremely good vaccine target (also known as Antigen). Therefore, the scientists decided to encode the instructions for making the spike protein into a molecule that acted as an “instruction manual” called mRNA. Then, they packed the mRNA inside a pod made of lipids so that the vaccine delivery is simple and can easily slide into the cells.

As soon as the “pod’ is inside the cells, the mRNA finds the ribosomes. As you may already know, ribosomes are responsible for building all proteins in the body. When the ribosomes are found, they begin to make SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins based on the m.R.N.A.

After the ribosomes successfully make SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins, an immune cell perceives that these proteins had been infected. Eventually, after carrying out a few actions, the immune cell emits antibodies and other defences to the disease. Ideally, this would result in full immunity against the virus and would allow us to return to “normal.”

How does Moderna’s Phase 3 Trial Work?

On July 27th, 2020, Moderna became the very first vaccine candidate to enter the Phase 3 Trials (also known as the efficacy trials). Here is how it works!

In the Moderna trial, they aim to have 30,000 participants selected out of 100 different locations in the US. The trial is designed to evaluate the safety of mRNA -1273 and to determine if the vaccine can prevent symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses. One secondary goal that the company has is to study whether the vaccine can possibly prevent severe COVID-19 (symptoms are not visible).

Now, the way the trial works is rather simple. Out of the thirty thousand people selected, half of them get the Moderna vaccine and half get a placebo.

“And [they] basically then wait and start to see who raises their hand and says, “I don’t feel too good, doc, maybe I’ve got Covid.” And once they do, then a whole system kicks into gear to diagnose them, measure their oxygen level, make sure they’re cared for, but at the same time, start tallying up a scorecard.”

Obviously, the type of people Moderna picks for these trials is vital when it comes to getting results fast and effectively. Therefore, they only pick those that are at risk of infection every single day of their lives. Some of the types of people selected for this trial could be protective service workers (police and EMTs), cashiers in grocery stores, and even janitors.

Why is Moderna’s Method so Time Efficient

The creation of a vaccine is no easy task. On average, a vaccine takes more than 10 years to develop. When in a global pandemic that has caused great harm and damage, vaccines are the one single event that will help us. Moderna’s approach is relatively different compared to others. This is due to the fact that the biotech company does not need to make the virus in order to be successful. Instead, they can simply use the information from the virus and administer the information directly to the patient. This would essentially allow the patients to “make their own vaccine.” This method is truly fascinating as it is an extremely unconventional way of making a vaccine — and has never been done before. In addition, with this methodology, Moderna was able to go from sequence to a vaccine ready for human testing in just 42 days — which is record time.

The Future for Moderna in the Next Year

As of Thursday, September 17th, Moderna had enrolled 25,296 of its planned 30,000 participants, while slightly more than 10,025 had received the first and second doses of the vaccine (one vaccine gets delivered on day 1, and another one on day 29 that acts as a booster shot). In addition to the number of participants in the trial, Moderna also made a rather peculiar move on Thursday. In the last few months, Moderna has received a lot of backlash due to its “appalling lack of transparency.” Hence, they decided to take the unusual step of publishing the protocol of the study online [135 pages long].

In terms of a time frame, many experts and officials say the outcome of ongoing trials cannot be predicted, and that they are unlikely to bring actionable results before the end of the year or early 2021. However, at the end of the day, Moderna is

“not trying to have the first vaccine. [They] want the best vaccine.” — Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel