‘Big Grain Of Salt’: Vaccine Experts Say Moderna Didn’t Produce Data Critical To Assessing Covid-19 Vaccine

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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‘Big grain of salt’: Vaccine experts say biotech firm Moderna didn’t produce data critical to assessing how impressive its covid-19 vaccine may be. Image created by Russell Tate, submitted for U.N. Global Call Out To Creatives. Unsplash

Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna was the first known biotech company to test an experimental vaccine for the coronavirus in humans and early data shows that it produced protective antibodies in a group of 45 healthy volunteers.

The media and the markets went wild over the news. Moderna’s stock price spiked 20 percent and peers such as Novavax rallied even higher at 30 percent-plus.

But so far, the much-hyped U.S. frontrunner in the covid-19 race for a vaccine has released words but no data, according to STAT News.

Moderna claims to be generating an immune response in Phase 1 trial subjects, but several vaccine experts told STAT News that, based on the information made available, there’s no way to know how impressive the vaccine may or may not be.

“Experts suggest we ought to take the early readout with a big grain of salt,” Helen Branswell wrote for STAT, a media company focused on health and scientific discovery.

More than 36 million Americans have lost their jobs and 94,708 have died from the virus.

“The news cycle in the era of the coronavirus pandemic feels like tidal waves of hope and fear on steroids,” Dr. Eugene Gu wrote for the Independent.

Moderna’s stock valuation surged $29 billion when the company blitzed the media about its vaccine trials — not bad for a company that doesn’t sell any products.

STAT’s report sent Moderna’s stock and the broader U.S. market lower, CNBC reported. 

A day after STAT News reported skepticism from the scientific community, Moderna Chairman Noubar Afeyan told CNBC that the company would never put out data on its potential vaccine that was different from “reality.”

Experts may be “professing expertise and guessing on what we may or may not have,” Afeyan said during an interview on “Power Lunch. “We would not, have not put out some of the data to make anything look any different from the reality.” 

In December 2018, Moderna became the largest biotech initial public offering in history, raising $600 million for 8 percent of its shares with an overall valuation of $7.5 billion.

Moderna revealed very little information about it covid-19 vaccine progress, and most of what it did release were words, not data. “That’s important: If you ask scientists to read a journal article, they will scour data tables, not corporate statements,” STAT’s Branswell wrote. “With science, numbers speak much louder than words.”

Moderna doesn’t publish its work in scientific journals, choosing press releases instead. “That’s not enough to generate confidence within the scientific community,” STAT reported.

There’s no way yet to know how long people will respond to the vaccine, according to Anna Durbin, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins University. The report of antibodies in vaccination subjects was from blood drawn two weeks after they received their second dose of vaccine.

“That’s very early,” Durbin told STAT. “We don’t know if those antibodies are durable.”

Moderna claimed that its antibody levels were on a par with those seen in people who have recovered from covid-19 infection. But studies have shown antibody levels among recovered people vary immensely.

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A study from China showed that 10 out of 175 recovered Covid-19 patients had no detectable antibodies. On the other end of the spectrum, some people had high antibody levels, Yale University vaccine researcher John “Jack” Rose told STAT.

STAT asked Moderna for information on the antibody levels it used as a comparison. Moderna responded that the information will be published in journal article from NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The company should disclose the information, Rose told STAT. “When a company like Moderna with such incredibly vast resources says they have generated SARS-2 neutralizing antibodies in a human trial, I would really like to see numbers from whatever assay they are using.”

Phase two trials are set to begin soon and phase three trials are expected to start in July.