Moderna plots 4 new Asia branches, local hiring spree to build its commercial footprint for life beyond COVID shots

With a growing ambition to become a global mRNA enterprise, Moderna has found a way to spend the huge windfall from selling COVID-19 vaccines: a geographic expansion into Asia.

Moderna on Tuesday outlined a plan to open four new subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan to “expand its commercial network across Asia,” which now represents “an integral part” of the company’s business.

In Hong Kong, Moderna will hire “a dozen employees across a range of functions,” including medical, regulatory, pricing, reimbursement, market access, government affairs and commercial operations, a Moderna spokesperson told Fierce Pharma. The company will “take a similar approach” for the other three subsidiaries and is “actively recruiting teams,” the spokesperson added.

The new branches will add to Moderna’s existing Asia-Pacific offices in South Korea, Japan and Australia, which together currently employ only 24 workers, according to Nikkei Asia.

Thanks to its successful mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna has quickly grown from a clinical-stage biotech founded in 2010 to a company with expected 2021 sales of between $15 billion to $18 billion, numbers that turn heads even in the Big Pharma world. For 2022, the company already has $18.5 billion in COVID vaccine orders as of early January.

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The commercial success has fueled Moderna’s desire for expansion. Just days ago, Moderna was said to be in late-stage talks with the U.K. to establish local research and manufacturing. The company has also signed collaborations with governments in South Korea and Australia exploring expansions.

“As we think about the long term, and building the company, we believe our best way to impact the maximum number of lives, and to help as many people as we can, is to build teams in local countries that can speak the language and engage with government, with the clinician, the nurse, the pharmacist and the consumer in the countries where it is allowed by the law,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said, as quoted by Nikkei.

Moderna’s focus for the four new Asia branches at this point appears to be its commercial footprint. But in his interview with Nikkei, Bancel said Moderna is in discussions with countries in Asia to build more plants but declined to share any numbers, citing ongoing negotiations.

“There's a few more countries in Asia where I would love to set up manufacturing, so we can supply the people in those countries and neighboring countries from those Asia-based plants,” he said, as quoted by Nikkei.

Beyond COVID-19 vaccines, Moderna’s Asian operations will also look to introduce other mRNA programs for various diseases. As the company noted in an announcement Tuesday, Moderna’s pipeline of preventative vaccines for infectious diseases, and other projects for cardiovascular disease, cancer and rare diseases, could also have a place in Asia.

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The Asia market has also attracted Moderna’s mRNA rival BioNTech. Last May, the German biotech and Chinese drugmaker Fosun Pharma unveiled a 50-50 joint venture to supply the company's COVID shot in China with the potential to expand into other mRNA programs.

But the Chinese mainland has proven difficult to penetrate for foreign-made COVID-19 vaccines. BioNTech has its Comirnaty shot currently stalled in the mainland, despite availability in Hong Kong. The country is also developing its own mRNA shot, made by a collaboration between Walvax Biotechnology and Abogen Biosciences.

Moderna’s presence in Hong Kong will also support commercial operations in Macau, the Moderna spokesperson said. Translation: The office won’t cover the mainland.

BioNTech is also establishing its regional headquarters for Southeast Asia in Singapore, with plans to build an mRNA manufacturing facility in the country to support both regional and global supply of BioNTech’s products.