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June 5, 2020 8:38 am

Former IDF Medic Foresees a ‘Billion Doses’ of His Company’s Covid-19 Vaccine by Next Year

avatar by Ira Stoll

Scientists at work in laboratory. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A former Israel Defense Forces medic who is now the chief medical officer of Moderna, one of five drug companies that the US government has identified as finalists in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, is expressing optimism about the chances that a vaccine will be deployed next year.

“We really expect this to work,” the drug company official, Tal Zaks, said in an online video event this week. He noted the firm had contracted with a manufacturer, and that in 2021, “we expect to be able to make a billion doses.”

Moderna’s vaccine relies on a technology using “messenger RNA,” which Zaks described as “the software of life.” The New York Times reported June 3 that Moderna would be one of five companies chosen as part of the Trump administration’s “warp speed” project to test and deploy a vaccine that would protect against the novel coronavirus. In mid-May, the company announced positive results of an eight-person human trial.

The federal government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has reportedly agreed to provide $483 million to back Moderna’s vaccine development efforts.

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Moderna was founded in 2010 and Zaks joined in March 2015, leaving a much larger firm for a young start-up. He said his wife asked him at the time, “What are you doing?” He said he explained at the time that the messenger RNA technology was promising because of its versatility: “If we can make it work, it can work time and time again.”

For example, he said, the firm was also testing its technology against congenital cytomegalovirus, which can cause hearing loss.

In response to a question about when it would be safe for grandparents to visit with their grandchildren, Zaks said he had planned to visit his mother in Israel for Passover, which coincided with her 80th birthday, but the visit was derailed by the pandemic.

“We Skype every weekend,” he said.

Zaks credited “the first-rate education that I got” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but said the story of how Israel put him on his present course “actually starts from the times I was a medic in the IDF.”

As for other drug companies competing in the effort to develop a vaccine, Zaks said: “I have only two competitors in this race — the virus and the clock.”

The phase three trial of the Moderna vaccine is scheduled to being in July, with results “hopefully by the end of the year.”

As for how long a vaccine would last, Zaks said, “we will worry about durability in 2022. If it is a problem, we just give a booster shot.”

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