Moderna's chief medical officer explains why their vaccine is better

Tal Zaks
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Moderna was the first company to enter clinical trials. It is expected to reveal the results of its recent comprehensive trial in the upcoming month.

Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, gave an interview to Globes earlier this week and explained why he believes that the company's vaccine for coronavirus will be better than the one being developed by Pfizer, Moderna's biggest competitor at this point. 
Moderna, a relatively young American start-up, was the first company to enter clinical trials. It is expected to reveal the results of its recent comprehensive trial in the upcoming month. 
Pfizer wasn't late to follow and is expected to publish its results shortly before Moderna does, possibly during October or early November. If one of these potential vaccines pans out, our lives might start returning to normal in about a year or so. 
"Our vaccine creates antibodies in the body... which means that besides being a preventative vaccine, our product can also be used as treatment for people who've already been infected. We've shown that the product prevents the virus from replicating and improves the patient's condition," Zaks told Globes, adding that he would be "very surprised if the vaccine doesn't work." 
Zaks shared with Globes what led him to join Moderna in the first place. 
After completing his studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Zaks aspired to become a children's oncologist. "Alongside my job as a physician I was also working on my doctoral thesis, and so I had the opportunity of working at the American National Cancer Institute (NCI)... Those were terrific three years, but I felt like I excelled more as a physician rather than a researcher."
He recalls thinking about focusing more on applied research, only to later realize that "the translation of science into medicine happens in the industry." That realization led him to Sanofi, a global bio-pharmaceutical company, where he was made senior vice-president and head of oncology.
"During my time at Sanofi I kept examining new technologies that could have a real impact in the world of medicine," Zaks said. "When I encountered Moderna's platform, which used RNA in order to create medicine and various vaccines, it was an offer that I couldn't resist."
"To Meirav, my wife, it seemed like an exaggerated risk. Leaving a vice-president position in a big company to work for a start-up? To me it made perfect sense, thanks to the technology and capability of translating potential into reality in such a short time." 
EXPLAINING WHAT makes Moderna's platform so effective, Zaks said that "our technological infrastructure is a molecule called mRNA... That molecule enters a cell and can basically create any protein we want it to. It can be an antibody for an infectious disease, a missing protein as part of a genetic disease or a protein that encourages the creation of blood cells." 
Zaks added that "the diversity of possible applications is nearly infinite," and that "vaccines are supposed to be the most simple application," of the platform, which may explain his confidence in Moderna's potential vaccine. "During corona, products can be advanced very fast," he added. 
When asked why the company hasn't produced a product that reached consumer's shelves if they have so many possible applications, Zaks explained that "Moderna only reached the development phase five years ago," noting that in the past decade it has started more clinical trials than any other company ever did: "four times as much compared to the most successful companies in this regard."
When asked about the main differences between Moderna's vaccine and the one being developed by Pfizer, Zaks pointed to two main differences. 
"First of all, we provide a larger dosage of the vaccine, which can create more antibodies in adults. Secondly, we have an advantage regarding distribution. Our product is delivered in a -20 C degree state. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a whole week in a 2-8 degrees Celsius condition, meaning that we can use existing distribution methods. Pfizer's product requires special dry ice containers and a special delivery method accordingly," he said.  
Today, Zaks spends most of his time working on Moderna's coronavirus project. Other projects have slowed down, as the company realized the necessity of a vaccine as soon as possible. 
Concluding the interview, Zaks admitted that it was easier for him to pursue his dreams in America. "In the US, I could fulfil my dream and translate science into medicine. I hope that Israel will continue to develop its bio-tech sector. Wherever I can be most effective is where you'll find me," he said. 
"As an Israeli, I'm glad that the country decided to purchase our product," Zaks concluded.   
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