The Boston-based biotech Moderna is to build the UK’s first research and manufacturing centre dedicated to the development of mRNA vaccines against new Covid variants and other respiratory illnesses, in an effort to improve readiness for future pandemics.
Under a £1bn deal with the UK government, construction of the new centre – Moderna’s first facility in Britain – could begin later this year andis expected to start producing the first shots in 2025. The government has committed to buying Moderna’s vaccines for the next decade.
The jabs are based on messenger RNA, the molecule that teaches our cells to make specific proteins that will trigger an immune response inside our bodies. Moderna developed one of two mRNA vaccines worldwide against Covid-19, alongside the one produced by Germany’s BioNTech and US firm Pfizer.
Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said the priority was to develop a jab combining boosters against Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms but can be serious for infants and older people.
MRNA technology proved one of the fastest routes to produce an effective vaccine against Covid, and scientists are exploring its use against other diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, flu and malaria.
Boris Johnson said the investment would “guarantee jabs in arms against some of the toughest viruses out there, bringing us to the forefront of the fight against future threats”. He added: “We’ve all seen what vaccines can do, and today’s partnership brings us one step closer to finding cures for some of the most devastating diseases.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, added: “Our new partnership with Moderna will cement the UK’s status as a science superpower, significantly boosting the economy and creating jobs – and it has the potential to unlock the next generation of cutting-edge vaccines to fight diseases such as Covid, seasonal flu and RSV.”
Moderna said it planned to expand its presence in the UK through investments in R&D and promised deliver a large share of its clinical trials in the UK.
Separately, Moderna said it plans to apply within days to US and UK regulators for approval for its new two-strain Covid-19 vaccine. The company released data to show the vaccine, called mRNA1273.214, protects against the Omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5, which are driving a current surge of cases. The new vaccine combines 25 micrograms of the original Moderna Covid vaccine with 25 micrograms of vaccine specifically targeted at the Omicron variant.
Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said the company is ready to deliver the vaccine for booster programmes as early as August. Relying on vaccines based on the original Covid strain for autumn booster programmes will result in “a shorter duration of protection, less robust protection and more severe disease and hospitalisation”, Burton said.