Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The first U.S. clinical trial for a novel coronavirus vaccine began yesterday, based on a formulation selected by Moderna Therapeutics and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Between the lines: Moderna was the first biotech unicorn, valued by venture capitalists at $3 billion in early 2015, before later going public in the largest-ever IPO for a development-stage biotech. We wanted flying cars, but instead we maybe got a civilization-saver.

Moderna wasn't just a VC-backed startup. It was a VC-created startup, inside an incubator program run by Cambridge, Mass.-based Flagship Pioneering. It didn't even have a name for the initial nine months of its life, just a project number.

Here's the basic concept, as I wrote in 2015 for Fortune:

Moderna’s core technology is designed to help people make medicines within their own cells, rather than create something in a lab which patients need to ingest or inject (i.e., the way other biotech works). It does so by injecting messenger RNA into the body, and then that mRNA stimulates the person’s cells to create the needed therapeutic proteins. Patient, heal thyself. Equally important, Moderna claims that its mRNA design is able to evade the typical human immune response that has felled past mRNA efforts.
Not only does this open up a massive number of therapeutic possibilities, but it also could make Moderna’s products significantly faster to test and cheaper to buy. Namely because it can use common mRNA manufacturing facilities and processes to create the mRNA that can be used for all sorts of indications, rather than having to create discrete ones for each new candidate (as is typically done today).

Noubar Afeyan, Flagship's founder and a Moderna board member, tells me that the "faster to test" part is a big reason why the company was able to already push its vaccine into Phase 1 clinical trials. He also believes that, if proven safe and effective, it could hit market sooner than would other, more traditionally developed vaccines (even after adjusting for government fast-tracking).

  • Caveat: Moderna hopes that the trials, which are being run by the NIH, could reach Phase 3 by the fall. If all endpoints are met, that could mean a vaccine by this time next year.

Moderna had been collaborating for several years with NIAID on developing coronavirus vaccines, and even had been preparing for a 2020 "pandemic test" whereby it would see how quickly it could design, develop, and mass manufacture a global vaccine.

All of that changed in early January, when Chinese authorities disclosed the genetic code for this new coronavirus.

  • Moderna refocused all of its coronavirus work toward COVID-19, with CEO Stéphane Bancel telling Axios: "Everything else would be a disruption and waste of time."
  • Within just a few days, Moderna had designed a vaccine on its computers, without access to the virus itself.

The bottom line: Moderna is not the only company working on a vaccine. Just today came reports that Pfizer is in talks with Germany's BioNTech about a joint development deal, and some biotechs are testing vaccines previously developed and approved for other diseases (including alt coronavirus strains). But Moderna's candidate is the first to clinical trials, and serves as a reminder that not all unicorns were founded to help millennials do errands their moms used to do for them.

Go deeper: Coronavirus vaccines in development aren't a short-term cure

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 12,859,834 — Total deaths: 567,123 — Total recoveries — 7,062,085Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 3,297,501— Total deaths: 135,155 — Total recoveries: 1,006,326 — Total tested: 40,282,176Map.
  3. States: Florida smashes single-day record for new coronavirus cases with over 15,000 — NYC reports zero coronavirus deaths for first time since pandemic hit.
  4. Public health: Ex-FDA chief projects "apex" of South's coronavirus curve in 2-3 weeks — Coronavirus testing czar: Lockdowns in hotspots "should be on the table"
  5. Education: Betsy DeVos says schools that don't reopen shouldn't get federal funds — Pelosi accuses Trump of "messing with the health of our children."

Scoop: How the White House is trying to trap leakers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told several White House staffers he's fed specific nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on to reporters — a trap that would confirm his suspicions. "Meadows told me he was doing that," said one former White House official. "I don't know if it ever worked."

Why it matters: This hunt for leakers has put some White House staffers on edge, with multiple officials telling Axios that Meadows has been unusually vocal about his tactics. So far, he's caught only one person, for a minor leak.

11 GOP congressional nominees support QAnon conspiracy

Lauren Boebert posing in her restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, on April 24. Photo: Emily Kask/AFP

At least 11 Republican congressional nominees have publicly supported or defended the QAnon conspiracy theory movement or some of its tenets — and more aligned with the movement may still find a way onto ballots this year.

Why it matters: Their progress shows how a fringe online forum built on unsubstantiated claims and flagged as a threat by the FBI is seeking a foothold in the U.S. political mainstream.