Spaniard Juan Andrés explains that he is currently working 18 hours a day so that we can all hug our parents once more as soon as possible. The mother and father of this Madrileño, who are in their eighties, are currently on lockdown in their home in the Spanish capital, the city that has become one of the epicenters of the global coronavirus pandemic, one that threatens to cripple the health systems of all countries in a domino effect.
Andrés, who was born in 1964, has lived in the United States for 30 years. He’s the senior vice president for technical development at Moderna Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that has come up with the first candidate for a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in record time. This is an unprecedented scientific race. A report from Imperial College London has warned that social-distancing measures will have to stay in place if the world is to avoid millions of deaths, until a vaccination arrives within 12 to 18 months.
In self-isolation with his family in his home in Boston, Andrés is fighting to defy even the most optimistic calculations. On January 13, when you could still walk the streets hand in hand with another person, his team received the genetic code of a new coronavirus that was starting to cause the deaths of workers at a live animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
By February 7, Moderna Therapeutics already had its candidate for a vaccine ready. On Monday, March 16, after skipping the usual tests on animals, a clinical trial on human volunteers got underway in collaboration with the US National Health Institutes. Andrés conveys a message of optimism: “We are going to succeed.”
Question. How do you work with this responsibility?
Answer. With huge amounts of motivation. I’m seeing close up the drama that is playing out in Spain. My parents and four siblings are in Madrid. It’s important that people know that there are other people working very, very, very hard to be able to create the vaccine as soon as possible. We can’t yet commit to dates or quantities, but we can assure you that we are all involved in this, working 18 hours a day. We’re only stopping to sleep. We’re buying equipment, getting ahead of ourselves as much as possible. And we are taking all the measures we can to [avoid the infection] of the people that have to go to our factories.
I have great hopes that in the summer, the infectiousness of the virus will fall, but we don’t know what is going to happen
Q. The fear is that we will not be able to hug our parents or grandparents again until there is a vaccine.
A. Exactly. I have great hopes that in the summer, the infectiousness of the virus will fall, but we don’t know what is going to happen. Our motivation is to go as quickly as possible so we can hug each other again.
Q. A vaccine won’t exist within a year.
A. I don’t think so. The issue with vaccines, above all in pandemics, is the quantity that you can get ready. How many people are going to be able to be vaccinated? The experts say that there are risk groups, in particular seniors and the people on the front line in hospitals. Possibly it is them, and people who are dedicated to activities with social contact, who will be the first candidates to receive the vaccination. When it’s ready, we’ll have to manage the available quantities to take them to the places where they are most needed, but that is not our job. That will be the job of the governments and the authorities when the vaccine becomes available. And that will not happen for months yet.
Q. The Imperial College report spoke of between 12 and 18 months.
A. We don’t know yet if it will be 12 months or 18. We’ll have to see what happens. Some of the best news is the fact that China is treating this like a personal thing, because it has been the place where the global outbreak started. They are exporting masks and helping, there is huge social awareness. And they are also entering the battle to get the vaccine, not just for their use, but for the whole world. There are a lot of us in this fight. We are working on the assumption that we are going to be the first and wanting to be the first. And we are delighted to be competing with whoever else, because that means that, between us all, we will have more chances of getting a vaccine in time.
What we are trying to do is get as far ahead of ourselves as possible
Q. What are the next steps?
A. We have entered into phase 1 [the first stage of a clinical trial, to adjust the dosage and to rule out possible serious side effects], with volunteers. Obviously, vaccinations are only tested on healthy volunteers, because they are a preventive treatment. Until we have the data, we will not know what the necessary dosage is, and we will not be able to calculate the time that will be needed. What we are trying to do is get as far ahead of ourselves as possible. Normally, when you are in phase 1, you don’t start to produce for phase 2 of the trials. I’m already producing for phase 2 [the second phase of the trials, in which the efficiency of the vaccine is tested with more volunteers]. I’m already getting ready to produce in the biggest quantities that we can. The second question is, how many doses are we going to be able to make? Well I don’t know, because I still don’t know what the dosage will be. The capacity will be five times greater or five times smaller if this works with a dose of 50 micrograms or if you need 250 micrograms. This is going to dictate when the vaccination will be possible. We are making an effort that is beyond superhuman, to get there as soon as possible.
Q. With the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, rich countries started to monopolize the existence of vaccinations. Will there be an attempt to avoid that on this occasion?
A. We cannot get involved there. The only thing that we can do is to place ourselves in the hands of the authorities and do our job. We are in the scientific part, and can do the clinical trials as soon as we can. This is a race against the clock.
This is an abridged version of the original interview in Spanish.
English version by Simon Hunter.