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US Inks Vaccine Deal With Moderna as Bird Flu Threat Looms

(Bloomberg) — Moderna Inc. secured nearly $200 million from the US government to speed development of an mRNA vaccine for pandemic influenza as a dangerous strain of bird flu sweeps through the nation’s dairy farms, fueling concern about a budding health crisis.

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The Department of Health and Human Services awarded Moderna $176 million to help pay for late-stage clinical trials that will start in 2025, Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in an exclusive interview. The vaccine will be tailored so it can target several influenza strains with pandemic potential, including the family of bird flu viruses currently in circulation.

Already one such virus, called H5N1, was detected in 136 cattle herds across 12 states and has infected three farmworkers this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nation’s top health officials maintain the risk of H5N1 to the general public remains low. No human-to-human transmission has been identified and vaccination isn’t currently recommended, O’Connell said.

“Our job is to be prepared should that change,” she said. “If you had asked any expert in 2018 what they expected to be the next pandemic, they would have said a highly virulent flu.”

Moderna shares rose as much as 2.8% in early trading in New York on Tuesday. They are up 18% so far this year.

While the focus of the government award is dangerous influenza strains, that could shift should a different pandemic threat emerge, she said.

The benefit of mRNA technology, which was the foundation of Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer Inc., is that it can be quickly adapted if the virus mutates. That creates a potential advantage over traditional vaccines, many of which are grown in chicken eggs.

Results from Moderna’s early studies of the bird flu shot are expected in the next few weeks. The US government contract is a win for the company, which is looking for new sources of revenue and trying to shake its reliance on the fading market for Covid vaccines.

O’Connell said the US wants to help Moderna generate the data it would need to get clearance from US regulators. But the contract, which was made through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, goes much further, she said. It includes options for the US to purchase vaccine supplies, which would be produced domestically and require additional funding.

The US has already reached terms with the biotechnology company to ensure “fair pricing” for the American taxpayer, O’Connell said, though she declined to describe the specific details of the contract.

Moderna likely isn’t the only pharmaceutical company that will reach a contract to develop mRNA vaccines for pandemic flu. The US anticipates making additional announcements about other awards, she said. Asked about negotiations with Pfizer, O’Connell declined to comment.

  • What to Know About Bird Flu and Fears of a Pandemic: QuickTake

  • Bird Flu Is More Widespread Among Dairy Cows, Sewage Tests Suggest

  • Alphabet’s Verily Is Mining Your Poop for Bird Flu

Traditional pandemic flu vaccines are further along in development and production. The US has two such vaccines candidates tailored to the current H5N1 strain, and is testing them with GSK Plc, Sanofi SA and CSL Seqirus. There are hundreds of thousands of pre-filled syringes already on hand, and the US has tasked CSL with filling-and-finishing another 4.8 million vaccine doses.

O’Connell said that those doses will “begin to roll off the production lines in mid-July.”

(Updates with share move in fifth paragraph.)

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