The foremost infectious disease scientist in the US has described the early test results of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine as “amazingly impressive” and says the results are a strong validation of experimental mRNA technology that some had doubted.
In an interview with the AFP news agency on Monday, Anthony Fauci said he was satisfied with injections that protect 70 to 75 percent of people from disease.
“The idea that we have a 94.5 percent effective vaccine is amazingly impressive. It’s really a spectacular result that I don’t think anyone expected to be that good, ”he said.
Fauci heads the National Allergy and Infectious Disease Institute (NIAID), which began developing the vaccine with the US biotech company in January, shortly after China shared the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus.
It’s based on a relatively new technology that uses a synthetic version of a molecule called “messenger RNA” to hack into human cells and turn them into vaccine-making factories.
No vaccine based on this platform has ever been approved.
“There were many people who were concerned about using something that hadn’t been tried over the years. Some people even criticized us for it, ”said Fauci.
On Monday, Moderna and NIAID announced their preliminary results, based on 95 of the 30,000 volunteers they have recruited who are infected with COVID-19.
Of the 95, 90 were in the study placebo group and five were in the group that received the drug called mRNA-1273, which translates to a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate.
Fauci recalled that some had questioned whether the vaccine would prevent severe forms of COVID-19, not just mild or moderate cases – and that too was emphatically answered.
“There were 11 serious events, none in the vaccine group – 11 in the placebo group, so the question is whether it prevents serious illness, which it definitely does.”
Moderna’s results follow a similarly impressive result last week by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, which reported 90 percent effectiveness for their vaccine.
Pfizer also launched a pilot supply program for its experimental vaccine on Monday in four US states as the drug maker attempted to address sales challenges faced by ultra-cold storage requirements.
When asked if it was too early to say if the mRNA technology was now proven, Fauci – usually known for his cautious statements – said the jury was definitely there.
“I think if you have two vaccines like this that have been shown to be more than 90 percent effective, I think mRNA is here, it’s established, and doesn’t have to prove anything.
“The data speak for themselves; It’s not me, it’s not my opinion – look at the dates, ”he said.
Traditional viral vaccines use real viruses that must be grown in chicken eggs or fetal cell lines and are weakened so that they do not harm humans – a process that can take many months.
In contrast, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines deliver the genetic information necessary to create a protein that lies on the surface of the virus – called the spike protein – directly to cells in the human body, which then allow it to grow.
This prepares the immune system to make antibodies against the actual virus, and has the main benefit of reducing the vaccine development time to a few weeks once scientists have the genetic sequence of the protein they want to make.
However, a few questions still remain, including duration of immunity.
Fauci said he was “certain” that it would last to some extent as cells of the immune system called “memory B cells” remained in readiness to make new antibodies to the virus.
But how long was unclear. “We don’t know if it will be a year, two years, three years, five years, we don’t know,” he said.
The vaccine could receive emergency approval in the US within a few weeks.
Looking ahead, Fauci said he was concerned about anti-vaccine sentiment in the United States, the country worst hit by the pandemic.
“You have to get over this and convince people to get vaccinated because a vaccine that is highly effective is of no use if no one is vaccinated.”
The US exceeded 11 million coronavirus cases on Sunday and added a million new cases in less than a week, according to a record from Johns Hopkins University.