Moderna’s resigning CMO says he achieved what he cared about

Tal Zaks: I never imagined that I’d develop a vaccine for the worst pandemic of our times

Sophie Shulman 19:4925.02.21
Moderna’s Israeli-born Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tal Zaks announced on Thursday that will be leaving the American drug and vaccine manufacturer in seven months. In an exclusive interview, he describes the company’s early days and the changes it has undergone since the start of the crisis, up until his decision to resign.


“When I decided to be an oncologist I never imagined that I’d be responsible for the development of a vaccine for the worst pandemic of our times, nor what the price of Moderna’s stock would be. When I arrived at the company six years ago it didn’t even have a single product in the clinical trial stages,” Zaks told Calcalist immediately following his resignation announcement.


Dr. Tal Zaks. Photo: Moderna Dr. Tal Zaks. Photo: Moderna
The company on Thursday showcased one of the biggest upsets in the history of Biomed companies, going from zero revenue from products in 2019 to an earnings forecast of $18 billion dollars from the sale of Covid-19 vaccines, in 2021.


“I did what I wanted to do and it is now time for me to move on to the next thing. I derive enjoyment from innovation, I am an R&D guy and what interested me about Moderna from the start, was the ability to show that RNA technology works. Becoming wealthy is a bonus,” Zaks said.


Zaks, who started out at the company before it was publicly traded, is leaving it with roughly $50 million in his pocket, gaining most of it from a series of stock options he exercised over the past year. Moderna’s stock price multiplied eightfold since the Covid-19 outbreak and the company’s announcement shortly afterward that its mRNA technology would be capable of developing a rapid vaccine.


Yesterday, following Moderna’s optimistic forecasts, released as part of its annual financial reports, its stock price climbed by 10% hitting a valuation of $62 billion. Zaks, along with other senior executives, exercised the options they received over years of developing the technology, at one stage cashing in on a million dollars every week.


“I still have options left to exercise until I depart in September,” Zaks says, “I gave sufficient notice for the company to find me a replacement. The company is becoming global and commercial and that’s no longer my field of expertise,” he said brushing aside a question asking whether he was offered the job of CEO of Teva Pharmaceuticals. “Teva has an excellent CEO and I am not the type to run Teva,” he laughed.


“I hope that after I leave, I will be able to spend more time in Israel, but professionally, I assume I will stay in the U.S. because this is the center of the biotech world and I have more ability to influence things from here,” he said.


Zaks is a graduate of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s medical school and a specialist in oncology. “Six years ago, Moderna was only conducting trials on animals and when Stéphane Bancel offered me a job at the company I asked him why do you need an oncologist and not an epidemiologist since I figured the first use of RNA would be in vaccines. But he said they were looking for someone who was capable of looking at the big picture and not a specific field. Vaccines did, in fact, enter clinical trials first in 2015, but Moderna took more products to trial than any other biomed, and that was fully my responsibility. Those were amazing years.” Zaks estimates that as more data accumulates about the side effects of RNA-based vaccines, of which there are so far very few, the more new vaccines that use that technology will enter the market.


“Covid-19 put RNA on the map and increased the certainty of success. The most significant effect will be on flu vaccines, but also for things like CMV (a disease that affects pregnant women). It will also significantly shorten the time to market of other vaccines. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, it would have taken us four or five years to reach a CMV vaccine, that time will now be far shorter.”