The United States’s top infectious disease scientist has hailed early trial results from Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine as “stunningly impressive” and says the findings are an emphatic validation of experimental mRNA technology that some had doubted.
In an interview with AFP news agency on Monday, Anthony Fauci said he would have settled for injections that protected 70-75 percent of people from falling sick.
“The idea that we have a 94.5-percent effective vaccine is stunningly impressive. It is really a spectacular result that I don’t think anybody had anticipated would be this good,” he said.
Fauci leads the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which began co-developing the vaccine with the US biotech company in January, shortly after China shared the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus.
It is based on a relatively new technology that uses a synthetic version of a molecule called “messenger RNA” to hack into human cells, turning them into vaccine-making factories.
No vaccine based on this platform has ever been approved.
“There were many people who had reservations about using something that had not been tried and true over the years; in fact, some people even criticised us for that,” said Fauci.
On Monday, Moderna and NIAID announced their preliminary results based on 95 of the 30,000 volunteers they had recruited who fell ill with COVID-19.
Of the 95, 90 had been in the trial’s placebo group, and five in the group that received the drug called mRNA-1273, translating to an efficacy rate of 94.5 percent.
Fauci recalled that some had questioned whether the vaccine would prevent severe forms of COVID-19, not just mild or moderate cases – and this too had been resoundingly answered.
“There were 11 severe events, none in the vaccine group – 11 in the placebo group, so that settles the question of whether it prevents severe disease, which it definitely does.”
On Monday, Pfizer also launched a pilot delivery programme for its experimental vaccine in four US states, as the drugmaker sought to address distribution challenges facing its ultra-cold storage requirements.
Asked whether it was too early to say if mRNA technology had now been proven, Fauci – who is usually known for his cautious statements – said the jury was definitely in.
“I think when you have two vaccines like this that have proven to be greater than 90 percent effective, I think that mRNA is here, it’s established itself, it doesn’t need to prove anything anymore.
“The data speak for themselves; it isn’t me, it isn’t my opinion – look at the data,” he said.
Traditional virus vaccines use actual viruses that have to be grown in chicken eggs or fetal cell lines and are weakened so they don’t harm people – a process that can take many months.
By contrast, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines deliver the genetic information needed 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 grow it.