Tony Luong / The New York Times

The building housing the headquarters of Moderna Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The drugmaker announced on Nov. 16 that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5 percent effective, based on an early look at the results from its large, continuing study.

November 18, 2020

Cornellian-Founded Moderna Latest Front-Runner in Vaccine Race

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Pharmaceutical company Moderna — cofounded by a Cornell-educated medical pioneer — announced promising results in its development of a coronavirus vaccine on Nov. 16.

With a vaccine efficacy rate of 94.1 percent, Moderna has emerged as one of the front runners in the global race to curb COVID-19 as its version of the vaccine enters its Phase 3 trial.

The company, co-founded by Robert S. Langer ’70 in 2010, is a drug development biotechnology company most noted for its work on novel mRNA technology. Langer currently sits on the company’s board of directors. 

Langer graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Today, Langer is one of 14 David H. Koch Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the highest honor awarded to an MIT faculty member. 

Hailed as “The Edison of Medicine” by the Harvard Business Review, Langer has more than 1,100 current and pending patents that have been licensed to 300 companies worldwide. His research has led to major innovations across the field of medicine, including more accessible diabetes treatment and the regeneration of damaged tissues.  

He has been involved in the founding of 40 companies, totalling a market value of more than $23 billion. If the COVID-19 vaccine moves forward as planned, Moderna will be one of his biggest success stories. 

When Moderna first released data from its Phase 1 trial in May 2020, Langer’s 3.2 percent stake in the company hit a valuation of $934.3 million. With new Phase 3 results in, that number is expected to rise, securing Langer’s position as the third Moderna investor with holdings topping $1 billion.

Moderna’s platform is focused on the use of mRNA — which allows for programming a person’s cells to churn out many copies of a fragment of the virus quickly — as the basis of their drug development approach. Since its founding, Moderna has aimed to use this technology on a range of other diseases, ranging from Melanoma to Zika. These products open the door to an entirely new way of creating vaccines — and creating them fast. 

When vaccine distribution does begin, many physicians anticipate greater usage of the Moderna vaccine as opposed to Pfizer’s. The Pfizer vaccine can only last 5 days in a standard refrigerator, and must be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius. Most clinics in the United States don’t have the facilities to store vaccines at such a low temperature. 

On the other hand, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at minus 20 degrees Celsius — the temperature at which most common vaccines can be kept at — making distribution far more accessible. 

Despite these promising developments, it may take months for the vaccine to be widely available to the public. As the number of national cases tops 155,000 cases per day, at-risk individuals including health-care workers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions will be prioritized. 

With some estimates placing the first rounds of distributing the vaccine as early as December, the decision relies on the Food and Drug Administration to grant emergency approval of the vaccine.