BOSTON — Cambridge-based Moderna surged to the front of the vaccine race, but company leaders say it did not happen overnight. Whether you already got the company’s shot, or you’re skeptical about vaccines in general, Boston 25 News wanted to bring your questions directly to the local company’s leaders for answers.
Boston 25 News anchor Vanessa Welch spent weeks interviewing Moderna leaders, from the president to the scientists who helped make the COVID-19 mRNA breakthrough, to get those answers in a series of reports.
Vanessa Welch: “Can you describe for us where you were and what your reaction was when you first got the news that your vaccine was effective?”
Stephen Hoge, Moderna president: “That was the longest 36 hours of my life because, you know, somebody in the universe knows the question to probably the most important question, certainly one of the most important of our year, maybe of our whole lives. One of the statisticians just starts reading off the results. And you’re sitting there panicked, is it good? Is it bad? The vaccine was almost 95% effective at preventing COVID-19. Now, at that moment, I just burst into the biggest grin of my life; you’re on mute, you’re on Webex, and you’re trying not to scream out loud.”
Moderna President Stephen Hoge said the Cambridge company had been working its way to that moment since it launched in 2010.
Hoge: “The very big idea that 10 years ago was probably called kooky or crazy was that we could make medicines using messenger RNA. The moment the pandemic hit, everybody in the company knew we could make a difference here.”
Moderna already had nine mRNA vaccines in the pipeline at their Massachusetts labs for illnesses from Zika to the flu. The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is the company’s first to be authorized for use.
Welch: “Explain for us, what is mRNA, in simple terms?”
Hamilton Bennett, Senior Director of Vaccine Access & Partnerships: “Your body gets sort of the software it needs to make its own protein. We don’t have to grow a virus and then extract proteins from it, your body becomes its own little bio factory and creates the vaccine for you.”
Hoge: “So rather than actually making a drug and giving it to your body, we provide instructions to your body so that it could cure its own disease or protect itself.”
Melanie Ivarsson oversaw the clinical trials needed before that vaccine could earn FDA authorization with the help of Boston-area doctors and hospitals.
Melanie Ivarsson, Chief Development Officer: “We were prepared to be very bold in the decisions we made. And we just kept going. It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever been part of.”
Welch: “And you think that boldness and that curiosity is what helps you win this race?”
Ivarsson: “Absolutely. Absolutely. Without a doubt.”
Hoge: “We value people that are bold and courageous, and they’re willing to take risks, but they do it in a in a very humble way.”
Hoge said boldness, collaboration over competition, and being humble are values engrained in the culture of Moderna, a message echoed by other company leaders.
Barbara Salami, VP of Digital for Commercial and the Senior Leader of mPOWER: “You’re told, look, we’re not looking for Superman here. We’re looking for visionaries who can do work, and [are] really looking for you to be collaborative.”
Scott Nickerson Senior VP of U.S. Manufacturing & Global Quality: “A large number of people across a lot of different backgrounds that are working to ensure that we get the vaccine out and in a timely manner, but also with high quality.
Welch: “And I imagine that this is not a 9-to-5 job.”
Nickerson: “We have this plant that’s running 24/7, so we run three shifts. And so, if you come out here in the middle of night, the parking lot is full.
At the company’s Norwood facility, they’re making bags of the frozen mRNA that are later sent to a plant in Bloomington, Ind. There, they are placed in the vials most people are used to seeing. Nickerson said they’re still aggressively hiring for local jobs from equipment operators to engineers and chemists.
Welch: “Is there a sense of pride for your employees that this has been developed in their own backyard?”
Nickerson: “It’s an awesome responsibility. We take it very seriously. But yeah, it’s what gets us up every day, it’s easy to get out of bed in the morning and come to this.
Welch: “Moderna is now a household name all around the world. What’s that like for you?”
Salami: “Wow, to my kids, mommy’s a rock star.”
Hamilton: “Last weekend, I was hanging out with a friend and I signed his CDC card!”
Welch: “You guys have been working around the clock, 24/7. Has it sunk in yet?”
Hoge: “Not even close. It really hasn’t felt like it’s time to celebrate. I mean, for me, personally, it feels like we’re still in the middle of this fight and we’ve got a really long way to go.”
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