“The field of medicine is becoming more personalized”: The UK executive of Moderna discusses the upcoming revolution in vaccinations.
The individual responsible for introducing Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine in the United Kingdom in 2018, during which 90-year-old Margaret Keenan of Coventry became the first person globally to receive it, is currently managing the development of a production and research facility in Oxfordshire for competing American vaccine producer Moderna.
The company’s Harwell site is Britain’s first centre dedicated to the production of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against new Covid variants and other illnesses, and part of the UK’s “100 days mission” initiative – the ambition for governments to be able to respond to future pandemics within 100 days of a threat being identified.
Moderna and other companies are utilizing mRNA, a molecule that instructs cells on producing a specific protein that activates the body’s immune response to fight against diseases. This technology is being used to create treatments for a range of conditions such as cancer, HIV, norovirus, and rare diseases, with a focus on pediatric cases.
Darius Hughes, a former pharmacist at Pfizer for 17 years, was recruited by Moderna in 2021 to serve as their general manager in the UK. According to Hughes, the messenger RNA technology allows for rapid vaccine development, with the ability to reformulate within approximately 100 days of any mutation. This is significantly faster than traditional vaccine methods.
Moderna is developing a combined influenza and Covid vaccine. The Department of Health can approach them to request a specific combination for UK patients. By combining multiple messenger RNAs, it will be easier for the NHS to administer the vaccine.
During the pandemic, Moderna was one of the first companies to create a Covid vaccine using mRNA technology, alongside Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. In 2022, both companies were swift in modifying their vaccines to target the Omicron variants.
Unfortunately, the NHS is still facing challenges due to the presence of the virus. In the past few weeks, there has been a significant increase in admissions to hospitals for both Covid and flu. As a result, only individuals who are 65 and older, have underlying health issues, work in the healthcare field, or are caregivers are currently receiving Covid vaccinations through the NHS.
Moderna intends to offer its Covid vaccine for private purchase in the UK in the near future. The estimated cost will be between £50 and £100, which is significantly higher than the price of a flu shot (£9 to £20). However, the final price will be determined by individual pharmacies and private clinics, according to Hughes. In the US, Moderna’s Spikevax vaccine is already available for purchase over the counter at around $120 (£100). Pfizer is also considering selling its Comirnaty Covid vaccine privately in the UK.
Moderna is utilizing their expertise in mRNA to develop treatments for rare diseases in children and personalized cancer vaccines. According to Hughes, their approach for rare diseases involves administering an intravenous injection that contains messages to stimulate the production of a missing protein in the body. These targeted illnesses include inherited metabolic disorders that affect the body’s ability to break down specific proteins and fats.
Moderna employs a unique approach in treating skin cancer by utilizing removed tumour cells from surgery to extract the patient’s DNA and create mRNA signals. These signals are then introduced into the body to trigger the production of antibodies that specifically target and combat cancer cells. According to Hughes, this method differs from traditional cancer treatments as it focuses on precise targeting rather than indiscriminate destruction.
Bigger late-stage clinical trials led by Moderna’s partner Merck (known as MSD outside the US) are beginning in the UK and elsewhere, and according to Moderna the vaccine could be launched under accelerated approval in some countries by 2025. Another late-stage trial for non-small-cell lung cancer is also under way.
Moderna hopes to launch a combined flu and Covid vaccine next year, followed in 2026 by a triple shot including not only flu and Covid but also respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause severe illness and hospitalisation in children and older people.
The company has applied for regulatory approval for a new RSV vaccine, but is falling behind its UK competitors GSK and Pfizer, who already have RSV vaccines available. However, a recent trial by Sanofi and AstraZeneca showed that their vaccine could potentially reduce RSV hospitalizations in infants and young children by 80%.
Harwell is set to become Moderna’s largest location outside of the United States. The facility is currently in operation and is projected to begin operations later this year. Approximately 150 employees, including 50 scientists, will be employed at the site. By 2025, the factory plans to manufacture up to 100 million doses of the vaccine annually. In the event of another pandemic, production could be increased to 250 million doses by running three shifts a day, seven days a week. According to Hughes, this quantity would be sufficient for both the United Kingdom and other countries.
He refers to himself as an unsuccessful medical professional, despite excelling in science and math during his time at school in Poole, Dorset. He was unable to meet the requirements for medical school, but ultimately found a passion for studying pharmacy at Portsmouth University.
Following a period of six months at the NHS, he spent 15 years at Boots before transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry. He held multiple positions at Pfizer, including a two-year period in Paris and seven years leading the UK and Ireland vaccines division.
Following the administration of 15 million Covid vaccines for Pfizer in the beginning of 2021, Hughes was fatigued from his demanding schedule of working seven days a week for a year. Therefore, when Moderna offered him the opportunity to become their first commercial employee in the UK, he welcomed the change.
Although they show potential, customized cancer vaccines present difficulties in conducting clinical trials and obtaining regulatory approval due to their specificity to each individual. However, Hughes is confident that they hold the key to the future of cancer treatment.
The field of medicine is advancing towards personalization not only in the areas of vaccines and cancer, according to the speaker. He emphasizes the need for us to lead the way in this development.
The individual claims that the government did not provide any rewards in exchange for Moderna setting up the first mRNA vaccine center in Britain. However, the UK has made a commitment to purchasing Moderna’s treatments for the next ten years and placed an order for 60 million doses of their Covid vaccine in December 2021. Some of these doses are currently being delivered during the ongoing booster campaign.
Worldwide, Moderna has distributed over 1 billion doses of its Covid vaccine, which is its sole product for sale. However, the company has faced backlash for its expensive pricing, leading to $18.4 billion in sales in 2022. These sales decreased to $6.7 billion in the previous year after the United States declared an end to the pandemic, and are expected to further decrease to $4 billion this year. In the nine months leading up to September 30th, Moderna wrote off unused doses and incurred a loss of $4 billion before taxes. The company’s objective is to reach a break-even point in 2026.
Moderna, in collaboration with the government for a decade now, is developing a UK-based supply network that encompasses vials and needles. This is to guarantee the country’s readiness for future pandemics. The company has initiated 17 clinical trials in the UK since 2021, covering a range of diseases such as Covid, flu, and RSV. Additionally, there are plans for conducting more trials in Britain, including those for uncommon ailments and combination vaccines.
An investor in Moderna, Thélème Partners, was co-founded by Rishi Sunak before he left to pursue a career in politics in 2013. It is uncertain if he still has a share in the fund. Moderna states that they do not have knowledge of the individuals who have invested in Thélème hedge fund.
Family Married with two grow-up daughters.
I attended Poole Grammar School and studied pharmacy at Portsmouth University.
Over the recent holiday, I went skiing in France.
The most valuable guidance he has received is to “savor the experience.”
The greatest professional error: “Choosing the simple route and avoiding challenges.”
The phrase “Keep it simple” is used too often.
He unwinds by engaging in activities such as running, playing tennis, and socializing at the pub with loved ones.