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An experimental COVID-19 vaccine shows promise but its maker is sketchy

Moderna has no proven track record with vaccines, has been losing key executives fast, and has drawn comparisons to Theranos from industry insiders.

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Drug company Moderna has released preliminary findings from the clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine, named mRNA-1273. The results have not yet been validated by independent parties, but the company claims many of the 45 participants were able to create antibodies necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. We're inclined to be skeptical, though, because Moderna has all the makings of another Theranos, the investor-darling medical tech start-up that proved to be vaporware.

Like Theranos, Moderna is notoriously secretive, and like Theranos, that hasn't stopped it attracting a multi-billion dollar valuation. Rather than making it more transparent, that interest and readily available funding have meant the company hasn't had to explain itself. If it goes public — as it may well do — it'll have to be more forthcoming about its work, but in the interim, it's not meaningfully required to account for its claims.

More worrying, its CEO Stéphane Bancel has a habit of enthusiastically selling Moderna stock when it climbs. Something it did today after news of its promising findings broke and Bancel appeared on CNBC.

Show your work, please — Twitter account @TeslaCharts, which usually focused its numbers-based analyses on Tesla, noticed the pattern of selloffs, and also pointed to previous reports suggesting Moderna may be another Theranos in the making. Another story that included information gleaned from 20 interviews for former and current Moderna staff argues Bancel tends to be more interested in the company's valuation and lofty promises than its actual results or overcoming the only certainty of medical science-based businesses: the inevitable failures on the road to success.

More promising than hydroxychloroquine — This was only Phase 1 of the study, and it was only intended to test whether or not the vaccine is safe to patients and won't cause any life-threatening side effects. It seemingly passed this test, and Moderna offered up some additional data about antibody levels. Three groups received different dosages of the vaccine over a 28-day span, with Moderna saying the 25-milligram and 100-milligram groups both displayed increased levels of "neutralizing antibodies" that are found in recovered COVID-19 patients.

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As Gizmodo explains, neutralizing antibodies doesn't prevent infection but can stop the virus from spreading to other cells in the body. The results are a positive sign that we may be getting closer to an effective vaccine — unlike hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump incredibly says he is using, despite medical experts cautioning against it. Hydroxychloroquine has been linked to increased risk of death for certain patients and shows little effectiveness at treating COVID-19.

“These data substantiate our belief that mRNA-1273 has the potential to prevent COVID-19 disease and advance our ability to select a dose for pivotal trials," said Tal Zaks, chief medical officer at Moderna.

Don't be stupid — The next step, Phase 2, will see Moderna test a larger group of people with higher dosages of the vaccine. Hopefully, today's results don't lead people into thinking they can stop social distancing, though — the medical community still believes it could take a year or more for any vaccine to be widely available to the public. In Texas, new cases have risen following the easing of restrictions and we have yet to see how reopenings in other states will affect outbreak numbers, though cellphone data suggest anti-lockdown protestors may actually be helping to spread the virus.

Besides Moderna's experimental vaccine, the World Health Organization reports more than 100 other coronavirus vaccines are currently being tested worldwide. Which is good considering Moderna's vaccine may not come to fruition. For all we know, it may not really exist at all.