Moderna made 800 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021, according to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of the company.
“My head of manufacturing was literally carrying the world on his shoulders,” Bancel said.
Business leaders and politicians met in the Boston Harbor Hotel to hear Bancel discuss the company’s transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday. The event was hosted by the Boston College Chief Executives Club—a Carroll School of Management business forum that hosts events for leaders in Boston featuring CEOs from around the world.
“We were built on building community—gathering people together, creating ideas, and learning from visionary CEOs and their companies to build, nurture, and uphold this community that is so vibrant,” said Warren Zola, executive director of the Chief Executives Club.
As Zola introduced Bancel, he said that Moderna was a much smaller company prior to the pandemic.
“In an interview with the Harvard Business Review just after being named CEO of Moderna, [Bancel] admitted that he was a little bit crazy in choosing to lead a tiny biotech startup in its infancy but acknowledged that it could be his biggest job yet,” Zola said. “I think he was right.”
Even though it was a small biotech startup, Bancel said when he became CEO he had a vision for what Moderna could accomplish in the field of medicine.
“It was initially a tough decision to contemplate joining the startup company, but the more I thought about it, it actually became pretty simple because it can change the world and it could change medicine forever,” Bancel said.
Bancel said one of the most significant obstacles in creating the COVID-19 vaccine was the time crunch, considering how fast the virus had spread in 2020.
“Being a respiratory virus, it was very clear to me that what was going to happen in the first half of 2020 was going to be a walk in the park compared to what was coming next winter,” Bancel said.
He recalled meeting with White House health officials in 2020 and sharing Moderna’s ambitious goal to have its vaccine approved by September, Bancel said.
“I remember being at the White House in March under President Trump and saying that we should have a vaccine by the fall,” Bancel said. “Everyone thought I was nuts.”
Prior to the pandemic, Bancel said Moderna had little money, but that the company hit its stride during the pandemic thanks to Operation Warp Speed—an initiative started under the Trump administration to accelerate the process of creating and distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
“Operation Warp Speed was a godsend for us because we didn’t have the money,” Bancel said. “I could not have done the study that we were doing. I just didn’t have the cash.”
Bancel said he then considered how to scale and manufacture the vaccine to meet the increasing demand facing the company.
“I spent all my time losing sleep on manufacturing,” Bancel said. “We asked everybody to help for capital. No governments in the world helped us, and I called everybody, even all of the big foundations. Nobody gave us a penny.”
According to Bancel, Moderna’s eventual success approving and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine led the company to shift to an even broader mission, taking on other public health issues through the pharmaceutical industry.
Zola said Moderna’s chief scientific officer defined the company as an iPhone with many apps—the vaccines and therapeutics that the company can launch.
“I thought that was a fascinating way to think about it because then it can play a role in [Moderna’s] ability to adapt to just about anything, whether it’s different strains or other vaccines and therapeutics,” Zola said.
Bancel said he hopes Moderna can launch an annual booster that could provide broad coverage for various viruses. There are 225 viruses that are harmful to humans, Bancel said, and most of the population is only vaccinated against 25 of those viruses.
“So many times in your life you have gotten sick and thought you had the flu, but guess what, you didn’t have the flu,” Bancel said. “You had another infection, but the symptoms are the same [as the flu]. What we want to do is get all protections against them in a single annual booster.”
Bancel concluded by urging the leaders in the audience to make socially impactful decisions in their respective businesses.
“How do we educate and get the facts to people and to our employees and so on?” Bancel said. “I think all of us have a huge opportunity to have an impact in the businesses we run.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Justin Knight