Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel BioNTech CEO Ugur Şahin
Holmes , the disgraced chief executive of blood-testing start-up Theranos , who also had an easy way with investors and a predilection for black turtlenecks .
By the end of 2019 , the sniping had taken a toll . Moderna ’ s shares were 15 % below their own IPO price from a year earlier , making it hard for Bancel to raise new money . Some investors were upset the company had shifted its focus to vaccines , a crowded and challenging field with limited profit potential . Moderna was forced to cut its spending . The criticisms didn ’ t seem fair to Moderna ’ s researchers , who were proud of their progress . They were injecting mRNA molecules packed with genetic instructions , producing proteins in the body capable of teaching the immune system to protect against disease .
Moderna was even working with Anthony Fauci , the US government ’ s top infectious disease authority , and his colleagues , who were becoming intrigued by Moderna ’ s mRNA techniques . Moderna hadn ’ t tested its vaccines in many people , though . And like Şahin and BioNTech , Bancel ’ s company wasn ’ t close to any approved vaccine . Moderna was planning its very first phase two clinical study for a vaccine and was nowhere near a late-stage trial for any of its products . The company hoped to have a vaccine in the market by 2023 , but even that goal seemed ambitious .
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In late 2019 , Bancel flew to Europe with his wife and daughters to spend the holiday season at a home he owned in southern France , after visiting his mother in Paris . It was a chance for him to escape the pressures of running his company and dealing with the doubters .
One morning , just after the New Year , Bancel woke up early and headed to his kitchen , trying not to wake his sleeping daughters . He brewed some Earl Grey tea and grabbed an aging iPad on the kitchen table , checking his emails and scrolling through the latest news . A story stopped him cold : Lung disease was spreading in southern China .
Bancel emailed a senior government scientist . “ Do you know what it is ?” Bancel asked . The researcher had been following the outbreak , too . No one knew its cause .
Bancel couldn ’ t stop thinking about the spreading illness . Maybe his team could do something about it , he thought . Perhaps they could finally prove that mRNA worked . He kept sending messages , each one more urgent than the last . “ What ’ s the latest ?” “ Do you know yet ?” “ Is it a virus ?” The government scientist promised to let Bancel know as soon as he learned the cause of the sickness . A few days later , as
Bancel and his family flew back to Boston , the outbreak remained on his mind .
His researchers had spent years preparing to fight viruses , but they hadn ’ t come close to stopping even one of them . He doubted the sickness in China was going to be a huge deal .
But what if it was ?
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Over the following 14 months , BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna led the charge in developing COVID-19 vaccines that would be a crucial step in returning the world to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy . While the research and science behind the vaccines has been well-documented , far less has been written about the entrepreneurs and financiers — including Şahin and Bancel — whose tenacity and business acumen made this remarkable innovation possible .
Gregory Zuckerman is a Special Writer at The Wall Street Journal . He is an investigative reporter who writes about various investing and business topics . This article has been adapted from A Shot to Save the World by Gregory Zuckerman , published by Portfolio , an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group , a division of Penguin Random House LLC . Copyright © 2022 by Gregory Zuckerman .
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