November 17, 2020

Now Hear This

On November 9, we learned that the preliminary data from the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trial are very promising; exactly one week later, we got similarly good news from the ModernaTX/NIH study.  What do the Moderna data show and how do they compare with the Pfizer data?

Moderna began enrolling patients last summer and has recruited 30,000 volunteers, half of whom received two doses of vaccine and half of whom got placebo, in both cases at 30-day intervals.  

The subjects, adults over the age of 18, were divided into 3 groups: people age 65 or older; people under 65 with known risk factors for coronavirus; and people under age 65 with no known risk factors. The principal outcomes that the researchers are tracking are the ability of the vaccine to safely prevent symptomatic COVID-19 infection and the capacity of the vaccine to stimulate antibody production in recipients. In addition, the researchers are looking at whether the vaccine can prevent severe COVID-19 infections and whether it can prevent asymptomatic infection (as measured by markers for COVID indicating current or previous infection despite the absence of symptoms).

The newly reported results are based on the 95 enrolled subjects who have thus far been diagnosed with COVID-19. Being diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the definition in the study, means having a positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) nasal swab after developing symptoms consistent with the disease. What we know is that of these 95 individuals, 5 had received active vaccine and 90 had received placebo. We also know that 20 of the 95 people with the illness were over age 65 and that 11 people developed severe disease, none of whom had been vaccinated. While the specific numbers have not been reported, Moderna has asserted that the efficacy was the same among the different age groups as well as among various ethnic groups (or, more accurately, given the very small numbers of sick people, they were unable to detect any differences).

What we don’t know is the duration of the protective effect. We don’t yet know whether the vaccine prevented asymptomatic infection, although we should know something about its capacity to do so when the endpoint of the study is reached, namely when 151 enrolled individuals have been diagnosed with symptomatic disease. And we don’t know whether the vaccine is effective in children.So, how does the Moderna vaccine compare to the Pfizer vaccine 

They are both mRNA vaccines, a type of vaccine that has never been approved for human use. The efficacy rates reported thus far are extremely similar: from a statistical standpoint, the 95 percent efficacy quoted by Moderna is not any different from the 90 percent efficacy quoted by Pfizer, given the small number of sick patients.  

Both vaccines have to be kept cold to remain viable, but shipment and long-term storage of the Pfizer vaccine has to be at 70 degrees below zero Centigrade while long-term storage of the Moderna vaccine can be at 20 degrees below zero Centigrade; on arrival at your local drug store or physician’s office the Pfizer vaccine can be refrigerated at normal temperatures for up to 5 days while the Moderna vaccine can be refrigerated at normal temperatures for up to 30 days without losing potency. 

The Pfizer vaccine has been tested in children; the Moderna vaccine has not so we just don’t know whether it will work in this age group. Finally, the Pfizer vaccine is to be given as two doses separated by 3 weeks while the Moderna vaccine is given as two doses separated by 4 weeks; efficacy was tested by Pfizer beginning 1 week after the second dose and by Moderna beginning 2 weeks after the second dose. These differences may not reflect actual differences in the two vaccines, simply different protocols instituted for studying them. In sum, it looks as though the two agents are very similar except for differing refrigeration requirements. 

Quite apart from the biochemistry of these vaccine candidates and the data on their efficacy, what do we know about Pfizer and Moderna? 

Pfizer is the Goliath of pharmaceutical companies. As of March, 2020, it was the largest drug company in the world, as measured by revenue, with annual revenues of $51.75 billion. It has experience in producing vaccines and in recent times was responsible for the development of one of the major pneumonia vaccines. But Pfizer is also a leading offender among the major drug companies in unethical and illegal behavior. In 2009, it achieved notoriety for the largest settlement ever made by a drug company with the Department of Justice: It agreed to pay $2.3 billion for fraud involving the atypical antipsychotic drug Geodon and the painkillers Bextra and Lyrica. It would lose the distinction in 2012, when GlaxoSmithKline settled with the DOJ for $3 billion. 

Despite signing a “Corporate Integrity Agreement” in 2009, a quick internet search reveals that Pfizer continued to engage in bad behavior: in 2011, it paid $14.5 million for the illegal marketing of Detrol; in 2016, it paid $784.6 million to resolve a lawsuit involving Medicaid fraud; in 2018, Pfizer paid $23.85 million to resolve a suit over Medicare kickbacks. It’s worth noting that most of the big pharmaceutical companies have engaged in fraud, including such names as Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Abbott, Novartis, and Merck. They seem to regard playing fast and loose with the rules as part of doing business.

If Pfizer is the Goliath of the industry, Moderna is the David of the industry—or was until it went public in 2018, raising $604 million through the sale of its shares and gaining a valuation of $7.5 billion despite never having brought a product to market.

Moderna began as a small biotech startup in 2010 and has focused on mRNA vaccines since its inception. Questions have been raised about the integrity of the company in light of its culture of secrecy and the high-stress environment created by its CEO. 

Some have even wondered whether Moderna would be the next Theranos, the unicorn ultimately exposed as a fraud, a story detailed in the chilling account by WSJ investigative journalist John Carreyrou in “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

Moderna has partnered with NIH (specifically the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) in its COVID-19 vaccine project. Hopefully, the involvement of a highly reputable, not-for-profit, academically oriented organization has provided a layer of oversight to the drug company.

So far, the data from both the Moderna/NIH trial and the Pfizer/BioNTech trial look very auspicious (BioNTech, by the way, is a German company devoted to developing immunotherapies, principally as treatment for cancer; it has partnered with Pfizer for years in a thus far unsuccessful effort to produce an mRNA vaccine against influenza). Let’s hope that the record of American Pharma in general, and the questionable past behavior of both principal companies in particular, prove irrelevant to our health.

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