March 4, 2024

Tthe man who launched Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine in the UK three years ago – when 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in Coventry the first person in the world to receive one – is now overseeing the construction of a manufacturing and research center in Oxfordshire for rival US jab maker Moderna.

The company’s Harwell site is Britain’s first center dedicated to the production of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against new Covid variants and other diseases, and part of the UK’s “100 Day Mission” initiative – the ambition for governments to be able to respond to future pandemics within 100 days of a threat that is identified.

Moderna and others use mRNA – which teaches cells how to make a specific protein that triggers the body’s immune response to disease – to develop therapies for various conditionsincluding cancer, HIV, norovirus and rare diseases, especially those in children.

Darius Hughes, who trained as a pharmacist and worked for Pfizer 17 years before it was poached by Moderna in 2021 to set up its UK operations as chief executive, says: “The flexibility of the messenger RNA platform means we can make a vaccine from any mutation within around 100 days reformulated and can get on the market. ready for vaccination in humans. It’s much faster than a traditional vaccine platform.”

With Moderna working on combined flu and Covid shots, he says, “the department of Health can come to us and request a specific UK mix for UK patients. We can combine many messenger RNAs together so you can make it very simple for the NHS to deliver.”

During the pandemic, Moderna developed one of the world’s first two Covid steps on mRNA – Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech were behind the others – and both were quick to adapt their recordings to the Omicron variants in 2022.

However, the virus remains a problem for the NHS, which has have come under pressure in recent weeks of an increase in the number of Covid and flu admissions in the hospital. However, Covid shots are now only given by the NHS to over 65s, those with underlying health conditions, health professionals and carers.

Moderna plans to make its Covid job available privately in the UK later this year. It is expected to cost between £50 and £100 – compared to £9 to £20 for a flu shot – but pharmacies and private clinics will set their own price, says Hughes. The company’s Spikevax jab can already be bought over the counter in the US for around $120 (£100). Pfizer is also exploring selling its Comirnaty Covid jab privately in the UK.

Aerial view of an industrial park in green fields, with some futuristic looking buildings
The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where Moderna has set up its largest base outside the US. Photo: David Goddard/Getty Images

Moderna is also focusing its mRNA knowledge on rare diseases in children and personalized cancer vaccines. “In rare diseases, what we do is an intravenous injection,” says Hughes. “We put some messages in there that help the body produce a protein that is missing in the children.” The diseases targeted include inherited metabolic disorders in which the body cannot break down certain proteins and fats.

In cases of skin cancer, Moderna takes part of the tumor cells excised during surgery, sequences the patient’s DNA and makes mRNA signals. It is injected into the body and tells the body to produce antibodies to attack the cancer cells. “Unlike normal cancer therapy, which kills everything pretty indiscriminately, these are like targeted missiles,” Hughes says.

Larger late-stage clinical trials led by Moderna’s partner Merck (known as MSD outside the US) are starting in the UK and elsewhere, and according to Moderna, the vaccine could be launched under accelerated approval in some countries by 2025. Another late-stage trial for non-small cell lung cancer is also underway.

Moderna hopes to launch a combined flu and Covid vaccine next year, followed in 2026 by a triple shot that includes not only flu and Covid, but also respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes serious illness and hospitalization in children and older people can cause.

The company has submitted a new RSV vaccine for regulatory approval, but is behind British rival GSK and Pfizer, whose RSV vaccines are already on the market. Meanwhile, a recent Sanofi and AstraZeneca trial indicated its sting can reduce RSV hospital admissions of infants and young children by 80%.

Harwell will be Moderna’s largest base outside the US: the lab is already in place and will open later this year. About 150 people will work at the site, including 50 scientists. The factory is expected to produce up to 100 million vaccine doses a year from 2025, which could be increased to 250 million doses by running three shifts a day, seven days a week, if there was another pandemic – “enough for the UK and beyond,” says Hughes.

He describes himself as a “failed doctor”, having been good at science and maths at school in his hometown of Poole in Dorset, but failing to get the grades for medical school. In the end, he “loved” studying pharmacy at Portsmouth University.

After a six-month stint in the NHS, he worked for Boots for 15 years and then joined the pharmaceutical industry, with various roles at Pfizer, including a two-year spell in Paris and seven years managing the UK and Ireland vaccine department.

After delivering 15m Covid shots for Pfizer in the early part of 2021, Hughes was exhausted, having worked long hours, seven days a week, for a year. So when he received a call from Moderna asking him to be their first commercial employee in the UK, he was ready for a change.

While they look promising, personalized cancer vaccines present challenges with clinical trials and regulatory approval because they are “individualized to a specific person” — but Hughes believes they are the future.

“Medicine is being personalized, and it’s not just in vaccines and cancer,” he says. “We will have to be at the forefront of this.”

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He says the government has offered no incentives in return for Moderna establishing Britain’s first mRNA vaccine hub. However, the UK has committed to buying Moderna’s therapies over the next decade and ordered 60 million doses of its Covid vaccine in December 2021; a portion of this is being delivered during the current boost campaign.

Globally, Moderna has delivered more than 1 billion doses of its Covid vaccine – its only commercial product – but has been criticized for its high prices, leading to sales of $18.4 billion in 2022. They have since fallen to $6.7 billion last year after the US declared the pandemic over and is predicted to drop to $4 billion this year. The firm wrote down unused doses and made a pretax loss of $4 billion in the nine months to September 30. His goal is to break even in 2026.

As part of his 10-year partnership with the government, Moderna is building a UK supply chain, including vials and needles, to ensure Britain is prepared for the next pandemic. The company has launched 17 clinical trials in the UK since 2021, including Covid, flu and RSV studies, and more trials for rare diseases and combination vaccines are planned to take place in Britain.

One of Moderna’s investors is the hedge fund Thélème Partners, of which Rishi Sunak was a founding partner, before quitting politics in 2013. It is unclear whether he retains an interest in the fund. “We are not privy to information about individuals who have contributed to the Thélème hedge fund,” says Moderna.


Age 55

Family Married with two grown daughters.

Education Poole Grammar School; studied pharmacy at Portsmouth University.

Last holiday Skiing in France.

Best advice he was given “Enjoy the journey.”

Biggest career mistake “Take the easy way out and don’t stretch yourself.”

Overused phrase “Keep it simple.”

How he relaxes Run, play tennis and go to the pub with family and friends.

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