Moderna’s president talks COVID-19 and vaccine technology

This 2019 photo provided by Moderna shows the company's President Stephen Hoge in his office in Cambridge, Mass. (Moderna via AP)

Soon after a new coronavirus began spreading around the world, little-known vaccine developer Moderna began working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to create a vaccine using a new technology. 

That vaccine is now one of the pillars of the U.S. COVID-19 response, with 130 million doses administered just six months after regulators authorized it for use. 

Moderna is now testing its vaccine in younger people as well as potential boosters that may be needed in the future — along with vaccines and treatments for other diseases — all using similar technology based on genetic code called messenger RNA. 

The Associated Press spoke with company president Dr. Stephen Hoge, who oversees Moderna’s research. 

Q: Will COVID-19 booster shots be needed in the future?

A: I believe that there’s going to be a chronic booster need. I definitely think they’re prudent to plan for. None of us want to be in a situation next November where we have to go into another lockdown. We’ve been updating our vaccine to make sure it boosts you back up. That’s the variant booster that we’re going to have available in the fourth quarter.

How long will it take to develop new vaccines to fight variants? 

With the first version of the vaccine, we did it in about five months, but we had to do the large clinical trials. We won’t have to do that now. For a booster targeting variants, we could do it in about three months. 

What makes messenger RNA so useful? 

Messenger RNA is really just an instruction manual. It’s no longer a medicine that somebody made. It’s instructions to your body. We can put anything we want into that manual to tell it what to make, such as the spike protein on the COVID-19 virus. If you want to change a paragraph, you just cut and paste. 

What else can mrna treat? 

There’s no disease where we shouldn’t be able to eventually have a medicine. 

What are you working on? 

(Vaccines for) viruses like influenza and cytomegaloviruses and other viruses that are hard to go after, like HIV. Half of our pipeline is in therapeutics. We have programs in cancer and heart disease. 

What will Moderna be doing 10 years from now?

We’ll be focused on cancer, infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases. In cancer, we have a couple programs in mid-stage studies. We are trying to prevent recurrence of melanoma. We’re partnering with AstraZeneca to develop messenger RNA that could be injected into people undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting, to grow heart cells. If we can do that, that would be transformative.