- A top Moderna executive who played a key role in the biotech's development of a coronavirus vaccine last year will depart the company in September, Moderna said Thursday in a statement released alongside its earnings for the fourth quarter.
- Tal Zaks, Moderna's chief medical officer since 2015, has helped to direct the company's rapidly expanding pipeline of experimental medicines built around messenger RNA, or mRNA. Over the past 13 months, he's been in the spotlight as Moderna designed, tested and won authorization for its coronavirus shot, shown to be about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.
- Zaks also courted some controversy over the past year with aggressive sales of Moderna stock that netted him millions of dollars while crucial testing of the company's vaccine was still ongoing. Moderna has retained a consulting company to recruit for his replacement.
When Zaks joined Moderna, the company was nearly a year away from beginning the first clinical trial of one of its medicines. Now, Moderna has more than a dozen mRNA-based drugs and vaccines in human testing and, with the authorization of its coronavirus shot last December, its first commercial product.
"I am very thankful for Tal for taking a chance on us six years ago. It was not the view of the time, trust me, that we were going to make it," said Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel on a conference call Thursday. "He saw that this technology could change medicine if we could make it work safely in humans."
Similarly lofty goals have defined Moderna since its early days as an exceptionally well-funded, but closely held biotech. Only in the past couple years has Moderna begun to back up its ambitions with data from clinical trials.
The potential of using mRNA — strips of genetic material that code for proteins — to make drugs and vaccines is clearer now, after last year's extraordinarily rapid development of a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine using the technology.
But the vaccine's development also changed Moderna. The company has hired hundreds of new employees and expanded manufacturing capacity as it attempts to produce as many as a billion doses this year. Moderna on Thursday said it has signed advance purchase agreements worth $18.4 billion, more than 12 times the accumulated deficit the company incurred over more than a decade of operations.
Neither Moderna nor Zaks, speaking on Thursday's call, gave any indication of where he might go next.
Zaks joined Moderna after five years at Sanofi, where he became head of oncology drug development.
"When I first saw Moderna, I saw it from the perch of looking at oncology," Zaks said in a September 2019 interview. "But what really struck me was first of all the breadth of opportunity, and second was the ability to move quickly."