The Covid-19 pandemic has led to major shifts in society and particularly the global healthcare system as pharma companies have been working at speed to ensure that people around the world are able to move past the pandemic and live freely.
With several experts saying that Covid-19 is here to stay, companies such as Moderna are working on new vaccines that could help target not just Covid, but also the seasonal influenza and make such vaccines easily accessible to the public.
Over the past year, Moderna has received approval for Omicron-targeting bivalent boosters in the United States, Canada, Europe, Switzerland, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and the UK.
This year, the company has plans to continue expanding across Asia-Pacific, including Macau and Hong Kong as it welcomes the opportunity to be part of any biotech incubator that emerges in this region.
Patrick Bergstedt, senior vice president of Commercials at Moderna spoke with the Times in an exclusive interview to discuss its plans for tapping into the GBA market.
According to him, the group sees Macau as “part of GBA and even though it’s a distinctive market we see it a holistic region which is very attractive in what’s we’re trying to accomplish.”
Macau Daily Times (MDT) — With Macau finally transitioned into the endemic period, can you provide some insight on Modernaís data on how [Covid-19] will further evolve into some flu, and hence, vaccines the company is working on to fight this flu?
Patrick Bergstedt (PB) — What’s very important to consider as we think about Covid-19 and how it has evolved and how it has continuous to evolve, is that Covid is not over; it continues to evolve. The virus that is circulating today in 2023 is not the same virus that caused the pandemic. it has undergone a number of changes and the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variant of concern is still the most prevailing variant that is causing infection. Therefore, as the virus has changed, the vaccine also needs to change and be updated.
Most countries around the world have now authorized and approved the Moderna [vaccines] for BA.4 and BA.5 variant. The bivalent vaccine consists of two variants: the prototype, the so-called Wuhan strain and the BA.5 Omicron containing strain. That is the vaccine that is now being authorized around the world. And that is the vaccine that we have submitted for authorization or approval by the regulator in Macau. […] Our mission is to really fulfill the promise of mRNA which is going to transform how diseases are treated but also how diseases are prevented. What’s unique and revolutionary is that mRNA basically helps the body do what it does best, which is protect each of us.
MDT — Can you give a refresher on how these vaccines will be different?
PB — What we hope to do is to bring the mRNA vaccine to the people from Hong Kong and Macau and the GBA region so that life can get back to normal. People are tired and fed up and people just want [to] get back to normal. But what we need to ensure is that people are adequately protected and get health security from vaccination.
These vaccines [provide] more targeted protection against the current circulating virus. It’s been updated. It’s been improved. And therefore, it provides a more specific neutralizing antibody response which [is] actually what provides people [with] protection against hospitalization [and] death, [in] particular, vulnerable population[s].
MDT — Macau’s healthcare system is not as strong as those in Hong Kong or the neighboring regions, how can Moderna tap into the local market? Or is it reliant on the GBA market?
PB — In early 2022, Moderna took the decision to expand and up until that point, our presence was very much in North America, Western Europe, and so we have taken the decision to expand in Japan, South Korea. We kind of zoomed in to Southeast Asia. Based upon various specific criteria, we selected Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore [because of its] healthcare system, academic university kind of environment. We chose sites where [there is a] good healthcare system, but also where well-respected scientific leaders are; a place where the environment is pro-vaccine and believes in the value of vaccination and protecting the society.
In December of last year, we opened up our regional office in Hong Kong. We don’t separate Macau, Hong Kong and GBA. We look at it as one region with great people, great talent and environment that is very pro for scientific research.
We see Macau as part of GBA and even though it’s a distinctive market we see it a holistic region which is very attractive [for] what we’re trying to accomplish: which is bring mRNA science [to] this part of the world so people can get access to [the] best technology and benefit from what mRNA offers.
MDT — Following Covid, what significant changes have pharmaceutical companies undergone? For sure it had a greater need for data, scientists and related experts. How has the industry evolved.
PB — With Covid, a lot has changed. The world has not seen this kind of pandemic for hundreds of years. […] Now we are starting to move from pandemic to endemic and therefore the industry now needs to move back to all those normal standards of timelines and review cycles. I think the opportunity now is how do we accelerate access and learn from how quickly we’re able to bring these vaccines at the time of crisis and keep that speed so people can get the benefit. How do we take the good things we’ve learned and apply them in the normal environment so people can get access to innovative care as rapidly as possible.
MDT — Moderna is in active conversations with China but with its strong adherence to its locally-made vaccines, does this serves as a big challenge to tapping into the mainland market?
PB — Moderna’s mission to the world is to fulfill the promise of what mRNA does. Our commitment is to make that science and our innovation available to the people of China. We don’t differentiate [between] Hong Kong, Macau and China. We are committed to make our information available to the people of China. I think that we welcome the opportunities to have dialogues with authorities in China to make our medicines and vaccines available.
MDT — Going back to GBA market, can you provide us some color on the timeline of your project?
PB. — I’ve had discussions with authorities in Hong Kong about the huge opportunities in the GBA region It’s 80-90 million people. I know there are lots of things that need to be worked out but we welcome the opportunity with a lot of reasons. There is the innovation through technology parks that have been established in the region.
The Hong Kong government is investing in biotechnology hubs. We welcome the opportunity to be part of any biotech incubator that emerges in this region. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to science and be [a] source of employment for excellent talent that exists in this region.
MDT — There are still people who are not willing to take the jabs. Is there still a need to shift this mindset?
PB — I sort of see three groups of people. One group of people who are always or are very regularly consistent with their vaccine. We need to continue supporting that group of people. Then there’s another who are on the extreme opposite [end]: they are the naysayers and probably no matter what we do, it’s going to be difficult to convince them. But I believe there are many people in the middle who used to be hesitant. I think the opportunity here is to work with scientific leaders, healthcare professionals, [and the] ministry of health to ensure that people have access to authentic, reliable and trustworthy information.
MDT — The investment in creating these new vaccines is huge but also opportunities are arising amid the endemic. What is the companyís outlook for this year?
PB — There are 48 different programs in various stages [of] clinical development. Today, our focus is on respiratory vaccines because respiratory disease has [a] huge impact on mobility mortality. There is a huge opportunity to protect society with more effective vaccines. Traditional flu vaccines are unfortunately not very effective and maybe have 50-60% of efficacy depending on the seasonal strain of the virus that is circulating. If we can now bring mRNA efficacy to 90%, that is going to be transformational. […] Moderna is developing a combination vaccine so that in the future, we have one vaccine that protects you from covid, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).