Noubar Afeyan, an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon and grandson of a genocide survivor, is leading some of the breakthrough U.S. COVID-19 vaccine efforts as co-founder and chairman of Moderna Inc.
Speaking with KTLA about the latest developments at Moderna, Afeyan highlighted how his journey as an immigrant has impacted his work.
“One of the only unfortunate advantages Armenians have had by having gone through a genocide and having spread around the world is that we do have an experience of escaping and of immigrating and of constantly restarting,” he said. “That feeling of restarting … turns out, is very similar to what you need to have a startup of a company or to innovate.”
Born in Lebanon, Afeyan’s family left in 1975 during the Lebanese Civil War and moved to Canada, where he grew up.
“I hadn’t seen snow. I had never lived in North America,” he said. “That sudden change defined me down the line.”
Afeyan studied chemical engineering at McGill University and later received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 2000, he started Flagship Pioneering to create and fund startups in health care and sustainability. Afeyan has since launched 40 other companies, including Moderna, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In early 2020, Moderna was tapped by the Trump administration to fast-track a COVID-19 vaccine. Through “Operation Warp Speed,” Moderna received nearly a billion dollars to develop the vaccine, and is promised another 1.5 billion to buy, manufacture and distribute the first 100 million doses — placing Afeyan’s company at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus.
“We hope that we will have sometime in December the approval to go ahead and start getting the first doses out in the U.S. as well as hopefully in Europe,” Afeyan said. “That’s where we stand, we’re very excited.”
Moderna’s vaccine, officially named mRNA 1273, is nearly 95% effective, early data shows. And, it’s not like the traditional flu shot. The vaccine was developed through groundbreaking technology called Messenger RNA (mRNA).
In January, scientists at Moderna and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) identified the sequence for a key protein on the surface of the virus called the spike protein. The genetic code of the virus is taken and administered into the body. Once it’s injected, it instructs cells to produce copies of the spike protein, triggering an immune response.
Moderna was the first to invent the field of mRNA for therapeutics, even before the pandemic hit.
“What’s remarkable is that the technology we have developed was perfectly suited for this type of very rapid deployment. And so within days, we had designed a new vaccine and started testing it,” Afeyan said, adding that it’s rapid but accurate.
The vaccine has now been tested on 30,000 volunteers, and has shown promising results, according to the company. It requires two doses, four weeks apart. So far, side effects are mild, flu-like symptoms.
“We don’t view this as a race,” Afeyan said. “There is one enemy … that’s the virus.”
Afeyan says his goal is simply to help people, and he credited his drive and passion for philanthropy to his immigrant mentality.
Moderna just wrapped up the third phase of clinical trials and is awaiting approval from the Federal Drug Administration. If all goes well, Moderna could administer 20 million vaccine doses before the end of the year.