With his US biotech company, 48-year-old Stéphane Bancel is one of the leading manufacturers of Corona vaccines. Already a year ago, he started thinking about ways to fight the virus. The exclusive interview.
Only a few minutes late, Stéphane Bancel dials into the video conference. With the laptop in his hands, he walks through the offices and sits down at a table. For 45 minutes he answers our questions clearly and without mincing words. As so often, he wears a zip-up jumper. Only for television interviews does he put on a jacket and shirt, but always without a tie. After all, Moderna can still almost be called a start-up. The clothing style is obviously part of the self-image. The company was founded in September 2010.
Last Christmas you already thought about a corona vaccine. At that time the disease didn't even have a name. Why did you think about a possible vaccine so early on?
Stéphane Bancel: I have been dealing with infectious diseases for 25 years. In my first job in Tokyo, I was confronted with a large-scale foodborne infection. It killed very young children at the age of three or four. This had a strong impact on me, as I was on site in the hospitals as a front-line staff member. Bacteria and viruses have therefore always interested me.
That's why you got involved with the idea so early on?
Every morning I read the «Wall Street Journal» and the «Financial Times». Last December there was only talk of a pathogen, it was not yet clear whether it was a virus or a bacterium. Immediately I wrote an email to the leading US virologist Anthony Fauci. Moderna has been working with him and his team for some time. Shortly afterwards it became clear that it was a virus. This is important because we have never developed a vaccine against a bacterial infection.
If it had been a bacterium, would you not have started research and development in the first place?
Exactly. Only after some time did it become clear that we were dealing with a new coronavirus strain. We needed the gene sequence of the virus, which was quickly available online. This was the only way we could start designing the vaccine. That was on 11th of January.
So, you have a direct line to Anthony Fauci?
I've known him for 20 years. Moderna has been working with Fauci's team for about three years. We provide him with our technology called mRNA. Public-private partnerships are essential to effectively combat new viruses such as Zika or Corona. It does not make sense to work alone as a company on virus vaccines. Fauci's team is the best in the whole USA.
Vaccines are now one of the most pressing issues of the corona crisis. How many mails do you personally receive from vaccine opponents?
I don't know the exact number, I have a good spam filter (laughs). It's probably between five and ten a day. But I receive many more emails with the question when the vaccine will be available or if the participation in a clinical trial is possible.
What do you answer the critics, or do you just ignore these mails?
I do not answer every mail, because I receive hundreds of mails per day. There are basically two groups of vaccine sceptics. There are people who have always been vaccine opponents. Then there are those who are irritated about the fact that the vaccines were developed so quickly.
And what do you say to the second group?
We have completed all three phases of clinical development. So, we have not taken any shortcuts in terms of vaccine safety.
Normally the development of a vaccine takes several years.
We are very lucky that the virus is not complicated. Think of HIV. This virus was discovered in the early 1980s but there is still no vaccine. There has been no lack of experiments, but the virus is very complex.
Yet you were incredibly fast.
The US government has given us strong financial support. So, we did not have to take any risks in this respect. And instead of doing everything step by step as usual, we have now done a lot of things in parallel. That saved a lot of time. Normally, you don't produce large quantities of vaccines before the first phase of the clinical trial is completed. Now, we were producing larger quantities at the beginning of the first phase because it was funded by the US government.
And also the regulatory authorities seem to be making a special effort.
Exactly. If we normally ask the US regulatory authority FDA about a vaccine, they have 30 days to tell us when we can expect an answer. If we need to discuss the corona vaccine, we receive a call back within an hour. If they cannot answer the question immediately, the FDA will discuss it internally and will get back to us after two hours.
To achieve herd immunity, 60 to 70 percent of a country's population must be vaccinated. At the same time, there is great scepticism, both in Switzerland and in the United States. How do you intend to convince people of your vaccine?
To simplify matters, there are three groups. The first is waiting impatiently for a vaccine and wants it on the first day. Then there are the vaccination opponents who don't think much of science, companies and regulatory authorities. Then there are the cautious ones who are sceptical because the vaccines have been developed so enormously fast. I am even glad about these sceptics.
If many people wanted a corona vaccine immediately, we would have a massive capacity problem. Even those people who want a vaccine immediately, have to wait. Because first of all, the health personnel and the risk groups are vaccinated. The sceptics will realize that those who have already been vaccinated will not drop dead or fall ill. But those without vaccination will continue to fall ill with corona. It will take time to convince the sceptics. But I am confident.
Moderna is also under criticism for its novel technology called mRNA. The long-term side effects are not yet very well researched. Do you understand people's fears, since the vaccine is not even used in humans for a year?
We have been working on mRNA technology for ten years. Our first study in humans was conducted in Germany in 2015. So we now have data from five years ago on that first vaccine. Actually, the corona vaccine is the tenth vaccine that we are clinically testing.
Nevertheless, the technology is new compared to other approaches.
After an mRNA vaccine is injected, the body breaks down the corresponding molecules within 48 hours. Half of the molecules are no longer detectable in the body even after four hours. The carrier of the molecule has a half-life of two hours. Unlike other vaccines, ours is free of mercury or excipients.
When do you get vaccinated?
As soon as I can. According to the law, employees of vaccine manufacturers are not allowed to participate in clinical trials. Otherwise, we could, for example, hide or play down side effects. That makes sense, too. The only exception is for life-saving drugs like cancer drugs.
Will you, like the future US President Biden, be vaccinated in front of the camera?
We are currently still clarifying that. But I think we will do it in a public setting. My wife and my 18-year-old daughter will also be vaccinated. With this I can show that I trust the vaccine absolutely.
What are the strongest side effects that you have discovered so far in the clinical trials?
There were no serious side effects. The remaining effects are mild and disappear quickly. As with other vaccines, local pain at the vaccination site for one or two days was the most common. In addition, some people experience redness of the skin around the injection site. Some people have fever or chills, but both subside quickly. As with flu vaccinations, it can happen that you do not feel very well during the night. Finally, some subjects experienced headaches.
You describe the vaccine of Moderna as «groundbreaking». Can you say anything about the long-term protective effect?
I described the vaccine that way because it has a very high effectiveness of 94 percent. This means that 94 percent of all study participants did not contract corona. And: the remaining 6 percent only had mild symptoms. So far, not a single case of severe corona disease has occurred in patients treated with our vaccine in our studies. Thus, the negative effects on people and the economy can be massively reduced. Just think of the situation in the hospitals.
Does this mean that someone who is infected with corona despite vaccination simply has a lower viral load in the body?
Our studies show that thanks to the vaccine the body develops a lot of antibodies against the virus. This applies to both young and old. If you get infected, the antibodies bind to the virus and cannot multiply. The situation is somewhat different for elderly people with previous illnesses. Their immune system is weakened, which is why it produces fewer antibodies.
In the USA, the FDA will probably discuss your vaccine on December 17th. You said that between then and Christmas approval is possible. What signals do you have from Europe and Switzerland?
The European Medicines Agency has announced that the decisive meeting for approval will take place on January 12th at the latest. In the UK we are only just behind Pfizer, we are talking about five to ten days.
The drug regulatory authority Swissmedic has not yet signalled to us whether it will be ready in December or then in January. I know that they are working hard on this and are examining our dossier very closely. As a smaller authority, Swissmedic does not have such large teams as the EMA or FDA. The commitment to safety is enormous. I am therefore convinced that the population in this country can trust in Swissmedic's judgement.
You want to deliver up to 20 million vaccine doses by the end of the year. Are these doses reserved for the USA or will they also be sent to other countries?
The majority are delivered to the USA. We first started production here because we received strong financial support from the USA. However, the first vaccines will also be delivered to Europe in December. Nonetheless, by law we are not allowed to ship the vaccines until we have received approval for them.
When can Switzerland expect the first deliveries?
If Swissmedic approves our vaccine in December, we will deliver the first doses to Switzerland in December. If the approval is granted in January, the first doses will be delivered in January. And so on.
So, all your logistics are ready?
The current bottleneck is the approvals in the individual countries and regions.
Pfizer has to cool its vaccine to -70 degrees, but with Moderna it's easier. Still, it's a huge exercise to distribute such large quantities all over the world.
Since our vaccine only needs to be cooled to -20 degrees, this is not an extraordinary problem. This is because all medicines are shipped around the globe with this cooling temperature. This was already the case long before the corona crisis.
Moderna is still a relatively small biotech company. It therefore made sense to bring a production partner on board. This is the Basel-based pharmaceutical supplier Lonza. Apparently, Lonza President Albert Baehny in particular is supposed to have played an important role in the negotiations between Switzerland and Moderna?
I cannot comment on the negotiations between Switzerland and us. But the Lonza leadership under Albert Baehny helped us a lot in other ways. We agreed on the most important details before the contract between Lonza and Moderna was even signed.
Both teams went to work, we invested money without any security. For three to five weeks, both companies spent money on a project for which there was no contract. It was only when we signed the contract that we announced the collaboration in May. We simply could not waste any time, otherwise we would not have had the first vaccines in stock in December. I am very grateful to Albert Baehny and his team for this.
Lonza will produce around 400 million doses in the USA and in Visp VS. Moderna will produce another 100 million doses in the USA. However, you have always said that you intend to produce up to one billion doses. How do you plan to achieve this?
We are convinced that we can produce at least 500 million doses per year. But our production team is confident that we can exceed that goal. Our head of production used to be responsible for the worldwide production of Novartis. But we do not yet know how much the yield in production will increase. That will become apparent next year.
But does that mean that you are not currently building any more production lines?
That depends very much on how effective the other vaccines will be. If Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson can provide as good data as Pfizer and we can, then perhaps the demand will not be as high. The more we ramp up production, the more we take a risk. We have to weigh that up carefully.
You are working on building up their European headquarters in Basel. Have you found offices here in the meantime?
We moved into our new offices two weeks ago. We have a lease for 18 months.
How many people will work in Basel one day?
By the end of the year, there will be around 25 employees in Basel, already now more than 20, and by the end of 2021 there should be between 50 and 60 employees. The employees here take care of production processes, quality control, supply chains, finances, medical affairs and so on. It will be a true headquarters for Europe, Africa and Middle East.
And what kind of future do you see for Moderna worldwide?
We would like to bring more products to the market. There are currently 20 drugs and vaccines in development. I would like to see this number at 30 or 40. Our technology platform works, we have over 4 billion dolars in cash available. After the Corona vaccine is launched, I would like to push further vaccines. Since 1990, 82 viruses that harm humans, have been discovered. There are only just two approved vaccines against these 82 viruses. That is where we see the potential. For example, we are currently working on a vaccine against the cytomegalo virus.
Is there a company that you consider a role model? A good example might be the US biotech company Genentech, which is now part of Roche.
We want to do as much as possible ourselves. From research and development to production, marketing and sales. I like Genentech as an example of a successful biotech company and it has inspired us all. I want to move forward more quickly. Genentech did not have a technology platform like we do.
Since January, you have sold shares of Moderna for approximately 50 million dollars. This led the stock market to doubt whether you really believe in the future of the company.
The company was privately owned for nearly ten years. During this time, I have invested money and accordingly I have not sold any shares. I have bought shares with private money in every financing round of Moderna. This is unique in the biotech industry anywhere in the world. All of my wife's and my savings are invested in the company. My wife called me a little crazy from time to time. I own 41 million shares worth about 6.9 billion dollars. I sold only one to two percent of my shares to get liquidity and to pay back loans.
You were born in Marseille, studied in Paris and then left the country for the first time in 22 years to study at the University of Minnesota. Now you have been working in the USA as chief executive of Moderna for almost ten years. Has it always been your plan to work abroad?
Yes. I was born in 1972, when the world was already becoming increasingly global. I had already been to the USA several times before I went to Minnesota, so it was a logical step to study there. Later I did an internship in Japan and later on I had a permanent position there. I enjoy getting to know new cultures and ways of working. I have only worked in France itself for two years as the head of a diagnostics company.
What do you miss most about your home country?
This certainly includes the excellent food in France. In my opinion, personal relationships or topics such as history or art are much more valued in Europe than here in the USA. I miss the quality of life and the «savoir vivre» that is not to be found here in this way. When it comes to business, everything works out very well and very efficiently in the USA.
The French and Americans sometimes tend to have a somewhat tense relationship. This was recently addressed in the Netflix series called «Emily in Paris». Don't you have the urge to work in France again one day?
I haven't seen the series, but my wife has. She is American and once worked in Paris, as in «Emily in Paris». Seriously: I would love to live in France, but not to work.
In my professional life there is only Moderna. The company is based here in Boston, so I am here too. This is the job of my life and also the last one. One thing is for sure: after Moderna there is no other job for me - no matter if in the USA or in France. But I am already looking forward to spending more time in Europe again.
When will you first return to France without Corona dominating our lives?
I think that will be possible in the summer. Then most people who want a vaccine will get one. However, the same will probably happen in the USA around the month of May. Remember: If you are vaccinated, you are protected. Then you can enjoy your vacations again, be it in Spain, Greece or wherever else you like to go. You and your loved ones will be protected if you are vaccinated.
The 48-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Bancel has been head of the US biotech company Moderna since October 2011. Before that, he was head of the French diagnostics company Biomérieux for five years. Between 2000 and 2006, he held various positions at US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, including country head in Belgium and production. Bancel is a board member of the Dutch diagnostics company Qiagen and the US agro-technology company Indigo. He holds degrees from École Centrale Paris, the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School. Bancel lives in the Boston area, is married and has two daughters. (mka)