Moderna’s next mission? Injecting hope–and healing–in Africa

Hazel Sive, dean of Northeastern’s College of Science and chair of the Africa Global Initiative, hosts a fireside chat with Patrick Bergstedt, Senior Vice President of Commercial Vaccines at Moderna, about how Moderna’s presence in Kenya will also help develop treatments for other diseases and position the continent to respond to future health crises in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex auditorium. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

When Patrick Bergstedt was initially in talks to join Moderna Inc. in February 2020, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology company was preparing to get a commercial messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine to the market by 2024 or 2025, Bergstedt said. When he joined the company in June 2020, the world was in the grips of a frightening new illness, and its scientists were working day and night to get a vaccine ready, not in four or five years as they had planned, but in a year or less.

“Moderna went from a company that made thousands of doses of vaccine to a company producing 800 million doses by the end of 2021,” Bergstedt told an audience in Northeastern’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex during an event sponsored by the university’s Africa Global Initiative. He joined Hazel Sive, dean of the College of Science and chair of the Africa Global Initiative, for a conversation on Wednesday.

“It was a crazy time,” said Bergstedt, who is currently the senior vice president of commercial vaccines at Moderna. “People were sleeping on the floors, working all hours of the day to get this vaccine out the door as fast as possible.”

As we now know, they did it. Moderna is one of three companies that received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine, and millions of shots have gone into the arms of people across the country and around the world. 

Already, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company employs dozens of Northeastern co-op students and alumni. And, in 2021, the two institutions established a fellowship for a postdoctoral researcher to get hands-on experience in drug discovery, development, delivery, and evaluation.

So, what’s next for Moderna? Global investment. The company announced in March that it would set up a manufacturing facility in Kenya to produce mRNA vaccines, including COVID-19 shots.

The company plans to invest about $500 million in the facility and supply as many as 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines to the African continent each year, Bergstedt said.

“The idea is to help provide the continent with its own sustainable supply of vaccines, long-term,” Bergstedt said.

COVID-19 vaccination rates throughout African countries have, on the whole, lagged behind other parts of the world. Nearly 16% of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated, and just under 21% is partially vaccinated, according to data from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Bergstedt blamed the disparity on a lack of community infrastructure and gaps in distribution logistics, calling both “fundamental issues that have to be addressed for the next pandemic.”

“What we’ve seen is that the vaccines are available, but the community infrastructure isn’t in place to get them into arms,” he said. According to the Africa CDC data, the continent has distributed two-thirds (67%) of its vaccine supply to date.

Bergstedt, who is from South Africa, explained that he had a different entry point into the biotech company than most. Originally a sales representative, he started his career in pharmaceutical sales. One day, Bergstedt explained, he was tasked with delivering a new antibiotic to a hospital. The drugs needed to get to the hospital that night, he was told, in order to save the life of a baby who desperately needed them.

“The expression on the physician’s face that night will live with me forever,” Bergstedt said. “He knew that as a result of this new technology—which had never been used in South Africa before—he could save this baby’s life.”

It’s a lesson he passed on to students in the audience Wednesday: “For those thinking about your careers, we all play a role; we’re each a piece of the puzzle.”

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