Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Modern (NASDAQ: ARNM) have been close rivals in the COVID-19 vaccine race since they announced the start of their Phase 3 vaccine trials – the same day in July. But Pfizer was ahead on the way to the finish line. The large pharmaceutical company obtained the FDA’s first Emergency Use Clearance (EUA) for a vaccine against the coronavirus in December.
Yet Moderna was not far behind – the vaccine from the smaller biotech company didn’t get its EUA until seven days later.
The two companies have since pursued competition largely in tandem. So far, 49 million Americans have received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine – developed under the code name BNT162b2, but now called Comirnaty – while 40 million have completed their regimens of the Moderna vaccine, also known as mRNA-1273. The two companies are also working on booster shots and are conducting the necessary clinical studies that will also allow them to start immunizing children and adolescents. But Comirnaty has a great weakness. And this weakness, along with the latest news from Moderna, may help mRNA-1273 take a leap forward.
A key difference between the two mRNA vaccines
Pfizer and Moderna have both developed mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. They use messenger RNA to trick the body into producing a key protein found on the surface of the coronavirus. Then the immune system creates antibodies that recognize this protein, thus preparing the body to fight the coronavirus. But their vaccines are not the same. One of the big differences from the start has been their storage temperature requirements. And this is where Pfizer’s weakness lies.
For longer periods, Comirnaty should be stored at ultra-cold temperatures – between minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit and minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit. The vaccine can be stored at standard refrigerator temperature for five days.
As Pfizer collected more data, it was able to relax some guidelines for short-term storage. For example, the company said earlier this year that its vaccine can be stored at relatively warmer temperatures (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) for two weeks. These are temperatures that standard pharmaceutical freezers can maintain. The Food and Drug Administration has approved these new storage guidelines.
Thus, pharmacies and healthcare facilities can easily store Pfizer vaccine for 19 days. I count the refrigerated temperature period and the pharmacy freezer temperature period.
Easier from the start
Moderna’s mRNA-1273 offered an easier storage profile from the start. Right now, the guidelines say it can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) for one month. It can be stored for up to seven months in a standard freezer. But this week, Moderna said additional research has shown that mRNA-1273 can be safely kept at refrigerator temperature for up to three months. The FDA has yet to approve these new guidelines.
Moderna is also studying new formulations of its coronavirus vaccine that would further improve its storage profile.
The possibility that Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine could be stored for up to three months in a standard refrigerator could give it an even greater head start in the market. Pfizer ensures the safe transport of its vaccines with special thermal containers. But in small healthcare facilities, the problem is on-site storage. Many doctor’s offices or pharmacies may prefer to stock up on the vaccine that can be stored in the refrigerator for a long time. They may have limited freezer space – or no freezer space at all.
And in some countries, temperature requirements could be decisive when it comes to choosing which vaccines governments and healthcare providers choose. Nigeria, for example, said earlier this year that it would favor vaccines that require less cooling.
An evolving vaccine situation
When COVID-19 vaccines began rolling out, countries were simply aiming to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. So they ordered what was available. But as various vaccine makers continue to ramp up production and refine their offerings, countries will have more choices – and a little more time to consider those options. This is when Moderna could take the lead.
Will this mean major market dominance for Moderna and a big loss of revenue for Pfizer? No. Certainly, mRNA-1273 could move into the top spot due to its easier storage requirements. But if that happens, Pfizer’s Comirnaty will stay close behind it. No company can produce enough doses to immunize more than 7.8 billion people around the world with the speed needed. Moderna and Pfizer each aim to produce 3 billion doses of their coronavirus vaccines next year, and each requires one person to receive two doses. So even if a country prefers Moderna’s vaccine, for example, it will likely have to order doses from another vaccine manufacturer to cover all of its citizens.
The more manageable temperature requirements of the Moderna vaccine will not upset Pfizer’s prospects for billions of dollars in Comirnaty’s sales. But this latest news is likely to lead to increased orders for mRNA-1273, and could significantly increase sales of Moderna’s products in the long run.
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a premium Motley Fool consulting service. We are motley! Challenging an investment thesis – even one of our own – helps us all to think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.