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Moderna and Pfizer, having shown speed with coronavirus vaccines, see opportunity in seasonal flu

Moderna and Pfizer each aim to apply the technology they’ve used to develop their experimental coronavirus vaccines in record time to build a better flu shot, the companies said in separate events with investors this week. Both Moderna and Pfizer, through its partnership with German drug developer BioNTech, use a new type of vaccine technology that relies on strips of genetic code to marshal the body’s immune defenses against an invading virus. While unproven, the technology offers advantages in speed and manufacturing that could aid influenza vaccine development as it has for Moderna and Pfizer’s coronavirus shots.

For Moderna, the goal is new and is part of the company’s pitch to investors that progress for one medicine can be quickly adapted for many others. Pfizer, on the other hand, showed its interest in 2018, when it paid BioNTech $120 million to collaborate on influenza research. Now, however, the drugmaker thinks that partnership can bear fruit earlier, possibly by 2022.

Each year, laboratories around the world test and track influenza virus samples, sending their results to centers in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Japan and China, which collectively help the World Health Organization make predictions about which flu strains should be included in that year’s shots.

But the WHO’s recommendations are an educated guess, and a given year’s vaccines may not match well with the strains circulating most widely during a region’s flu season.

Moderna and Pfizer each see an opportunity to use the messenger RNA technology underpinning their experimental coronavirus vaccines to help address the problem.

“There’s a world in which we don’t have to use the guess the WHO makes in February on seasonal flu strain,” said Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, in an interview. “We could do that much later with a strain that’s much closer to what’s happening in the U.S.”

Vaccine makers, even those not working on mRNA shots, have moved with extraordinary speed to develop and test candidates against the new coronavirus. The dire urgency of the pandemic has played a major factor in their haste, but for Moderna and Pfizer, the experience suggests potential for mRNA vaccines against influenza to be more quickly adapted to respond to changes in circulating virus strains.

Since mRNA vaccines use genetic code, the companies could swap out which sequences are used based on sampling done close to when the flu seasons are most severe. Traditional flu vaccines, by contrast, are grown in chicken eggs or insect cells, and consist of inactivated or weakened virus, or viral proteins.

Moderna, in pitching investors on its intent to enter the seasonal flu business, cited numbers indicating currently approved flu vaccines are between 40% to 60% effective — a number the company thinks it can improve upon.

“We believe we have a chance to change that marketplace,” said Bancel.

The executive suggested Moderna could even explore development of a single vaccine against multiple respiratory viruses, like influenza, SARS-CoV-2 and respiratory syncytial virus, using mRNA.

Moderna has never successfully developed an approved product, however, and the company is known for touting ambitious targets. Bancel would not say how quickly Moderna might be able to meet its new goal of becoming a player in seasonal flu vaccines.

Pfizer, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, shares the smaller company’s ambitions, and set a target of 2022 to potentially expand its mRNA work with a flu shot against several different strains.

Other companies, including top vaccine developer GlaxoSmithKline, have shown interest in mRNA vaccines too, contributing to a boom in funding for biotechs working in the space.

Moderna also announced on Thursday new collaborations with Vertex, in gene editing for cystic fibrosis, and with Italian drugmaker Chiesi, in pulmonary arterial hypertension. Together the deals hand Moderna $100 million in upfront cash.